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Are We Really Listening to the Right Messages?
Reflections on a Teenage Suicide

For Sunday July 5, 2009

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           2 Samuel 5:1–5, 9–10 or Ezekiel 2:1–5
           Psalm 48 or Psalm 123
           2 Corinthians 12:2–10
           Mark 6:1–13

           One week before high school graduation last month, a classmate of my daughter ended her life when she was struck by a train at an intersection near our house. This was the second student suicide at our high school in one month at the exact same place. A third student made an unsuccessful attempt when his mother and a motorist wrestled him off the tracks. Shock, confusion and grief marked what is normally the most joyful celebration of the school year. Last night I stood at that intersection, looking at the flowers and the poetry fluttering in the evening breeze.

           I wondered why Jean-Paul and Sonya felt like dying was better than living. They were two good, bright kids. Sonya had been accepted at New York University as a theater major. They connected with friends at school and had loving families at home. They lived in a community of privilege and affluence, and attended one of the best high schools in the nation. But in some sense suicide is not a "rational" act, just like depression is not about sadness. Whatever the note says that Sonya left behind, it will never fully explain the tragedy.

           Suicide rates vary according to numerous risk factors like age, gender, ethnicity, health, genetic predisposition, family history, and substance abuse. Our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered youth face increased risks of suicide. Assigning blame or speculating about simplistic explanations does more harm than good. Some suicides are related to depression and mental illness. Many parents have pointed to the unrealistic expectations that we place on our kids, and the highly competitive nature of their school experience. Are we collectively pimping "performance junkies?"

           Whatever merit these "explanations" have, Sonya and Jean-Paul felt isolated and hopeless, and it's impossible not to wonder how our community could have done better. Our schools will review protocols and counseling resources. At a community forum, a panel of experts discussed "Breaking the Stigma: Adolescent Depression." Public safety officials will re-examine their role. Online forums enable an ongoing public discussion.

           I've wondered if we are listening to our kids. Are we paying attention as well as we could? Detecting obvious signals? Discerning what is directly in front of us? Giving children the full attention that they need and deserve? Really and truly listening to each other does not happen automatically; it's more like an acquired skill and intentional act rather than a natural gift.

           The Scriptures this week are about people not listening. A nation, a village, a family, and a church — they didn't listen. They ignored the right messages and embraced the wrong ones.

           After the death and public mutilation of Israel's first king Saul, the "house of Saul" and "the house of David" waged a civil war over the transition of power. David grew "stronger and stronger," while the house of Saul grew "weaker and weaker." Eventually, Israel anointed David as king when he was thirty years old; he reigned for forty years.

           David crushed his enemies as a "war president." After he conquered Jerusalem, he renamed the city after himself. He renovated the city, built elaborate public memorials, and constructed a palace for himself. He forged political treaties and economic agreements with Hiram king of Tyre. David took more and more concubines for himself. He took more and more wives, and fathered more and more children. When that wasn't enough he took one more woman, Bathsheba, and murdered her husband Uriah.

           In short, David "became more and more powerful." A national poet even rhapsodized about "the city of the great king," that "God makes her secure forever" (Psalm 48:8). But his nationalistic rhetoric was badly mistaken. Four hundred years later, Babylon conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC. Enemy troops ransacked the city, subjugated the land, enslaved its people, and installed a puppet government. They left behind the poor and the weak for dead, and exiled the best and the brightest to Babylon.

           God sent Ezekiel the priest as a prophet to those exiles. Ezekiel describes beleaguered Israel as a people of rebellion and revolt, as obstinate and stubborn. He describes himself as "overwhelmed" at God's call on him. The sacred scroll that he symbolically ate tasted sweet, but its contents were bitter. The message that Ezekiel conveyed to the exiles was characterized by "lament, mourning, and woe." Why? "The house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me."

           Many people did not listen to Jesus, including those who were closest to him. His own family tried to apprehend him: "he is out of his mind," they said. Neighbors rumored that he had a demon. The people of the synagogue ran him out of town to the edge of a cliff and tried to push him off. His own brothers didn't believe in him. Many in his inner circle stopped following him. And in the gospel for this week, his home town of Nazareth tried to kill him as a deranged crackpot. They were "scandalized" by Jesus, writes Mark (cf. Mark 3:21 and 6:1–13, Luke 4:29, John 7:5).

            The church at Corinth turned a deaf ear to the apostle Paul. They complained that Paul was a two-faced hypocrite—bold in his letters but timid in person. In contrast to his "weighty and forceful" letters, they mocked his physical presence as "unimpressive." His speaking, they said, "amounts to nothing." Invoking irony, Paul apologized for preaching free of charge, and admitted that he was not a "trained speaker." The Corinthians much preferred some so-called "super-apostles" who commended themselves as superior, and who were as slick as they were expensive. But Paul warned the Corinthians that the "super" apostles were really "pseudo" apostles who exploited them.

           Thus the famous words of Jesus, that "only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor" (Mark 6:4). People joke that the definition of an expert is "someone who's at least sixty miles from home." True enough. But often times the clearest messages from God are the closest ones to us. Like those from our own children. Our job is to pay attention and to listen.

For further reflection

* The National Institute of Health
* American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
* Suicide Prevention Resource Center
* “I will listen,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 85:8).           

Image credits: (1) University of California; (2) Parents Universal Resource Experts; and (3)