Call for Light
September 18, 2022 Rev. Drew Stockstill
Throughout high school and some of college, I was a lifeguard at the YMCA. We had two Y’s in Thomasville. One had an indoor pool, so I had year-round employment. One winter, I’ll never forget, a local church hired out the pool and I was the lifeguard for a bunch of baptisms. I’d never seen singing and dancing at the pool before. And everyone was in their Sunday finest.
Then there was the big outdoor pool at the other Y. Actually, it was more of a complex with two pools, water slides, lap lanes, a splash pad, and a kid pool. From the time the pool opened in the spring through the end of the summer, this place was slammed. I was there from the early morning,
teaching swimming lessons, through the evening rush. They could be long days, and pretty boring. Luckily, we had a team of lifeguards and we’d rotate stations every 15 minutes so we could stay focused and on our toes because the thing you learn as a lifeguard is that when someone is really in trouble in the water, it doesn’t look like it does on TV. Someone who is drowning usually doesn’t call out for help, they don’t splash, and wave and try to get attention. Drowning is silent. If the lifeguard is not paying attention, constantly scanning the pool, looking under the surface, and watching for the subtle signs of distress they can easily miss someone who is drowning.
Parents would often leave their kids in the care of us lifeguards while they napped, or read, or chatted with friends. Once a toddler I had my eyes one toddled away from his mom and right into the deep end. He didn’t make a sound, just slipped in and under. His eyes got big as pancakes, his feet churning, but not a splash, not a peep. Luckily it was only a few seconds before I had him. Often an older kid would overestimate their swimming abilities, especially when with friends. They’d be playing just fine, and then get a little too deep and couldn’t touch, and then, silently, they are drowning. Even their friends right next to them may not realize what is happening. So, lifeguards are trained to scan, stay alert, and when we detect something, call attention, blow our whistles, and jump in. We may call out as we swim, “Hey, hey are you OK?” If they’re fine, they say so. Better to have misjudged and overreacted. If they’re not OK, they say nothing. Incidentally, it’s also true when someone is choking. Most people who are choking don’t make a scene, they’re embarrassed, and they’re in shock. “Hey, hey are you OK?”
See, the thing is, it’s not always obvious when someone is in distress. Sure, I want for anyone who is in need of help to know they can call out, call for help. But often that’s just not what happens. Often, it’s that way with suicide. After someone dies by suicide, loved ones will search their memories for signs and clues – “Were they calling for help, splashing, waving and I just didn’t see?” I have gone back to voicemails left for me by a friend who later died by suicide and wondered if the cry for help is coded in there. But, beloved, if the signs were there, they can be so easily missed. On top of that, most often the decision to take one’s life is impulsive, and not planned for. Often the decision to die is made within the final hour of someone’s life. That makes it difficult to react, keep a person company, to get them to help, and restrict lethal means to save a life. But we, church, can become like lifeguards for the people in our lives who may find themselves in distress, which is why I thank you for joining me these last few weeks as we talk about a topic that is often simply not discussed.
September is suicide prevention awareness month, and so we are doing our part to bring awareness to equip ourselves with skills to be, in a sense, lifeguards and first responders. While suicide can’t be predicted, we can be part of preventing it. We can call for light in the darkness. We have both the faith and hope in Jesus Christ who is with us in all things, and we also have the community of the faith, people who are here to help those suffering get the mental health treatment they need.
In 2020 an estimated 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide and 46,000 Americans died by suicide. That’s almost the entire population of Harrisburg who died by suicide in a single year.
The rate of suicide is highest in middle-aged white men.
In 2020, men died by suicide, 3.88x more than women.
On average, there are 130 suicides per day.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people 15 to 24.
We can’t predict suicide, but we can be aware of warning signs. Is someone under a great deal of stress? Do they say things like: “This isn’t worth it. I can’t do anything right. I don’t know what I’m going to do, I have nowhere to go.” Is there declining self-care, withdrawal, giving up future plans and goals, anger, reckless behavior, or mood changes? It never hurts to ask someone about how they are experiencing these things and to be direct – ask if they are thinking of dying. Ask what kind of support they are getting. Listen without judgment. You don’t have to have the answers. If they are thinking of suicide then offer to help them get treatment. Make the call with them - 988. Call 911. Drive them to the hospital. Don’t leave them alone until help has arrived. Many people think they have no other option. But we can call for light so they may see there are people who care and want them in the world and who will help them. “Hey, hey, are you OK?”
There is no single cause for suicide but the novelist David Foster Wallace described one way to think about the suffering so many experiences, and he experienced himself.
“The person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
Sadly, David died by suicide on September 12, 2008 and the world isn’t better without him. He captures the internal terror someone may be suffering in silence. For many it is not a desire to die, he tells us, but that it seems the less terrible of two terrors. Our hope, as people of faith, of hope, of life, is to call for light, light to reveal more than two options, a path out of the flames of life, a path that leads to green pastures and still water, a path of that restores the soul.
In the book of Acts there is this story about Paul and his companion, Silas….
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken, and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them, and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
Good Christian friends, rejoice! This is our role in the world: to be those who can stand in the dark even though we may be scared, trusting God is with us. We are to be the ones who like Paul and Silas, though beaten, naked, hurting, and facing death, nonetheless show there is a joy that is stronger than the pains of this life and it is fueled by hope. That is what enables Paul and Silas, imprisoned and chained to keep praying and singing hymns to God, inspiring the other prisoners. They were keeping hope alive. They were calling for light in the darkness and their hope was contagious.
Their hope prevailed and so did their God – the foundations of the prison shook, the doors were opened, and everyone's chains unfastened. Sometimes this rescue from the prison, from the building on fire, from whatever seemingly impossible struggle you are facing is supernatural. For Paul, God himself comes to the rescue in an incredible way. But more often God’s rescue is very natural – it is a person, a people, who show up and who care, who listen, and who acts as a guide to the needed help.
The prison guard, likely fearing punishment, shame, embarrassment, and humiliation for all the prisoners escaping, does not desire to die but in this moment of terror he doesn’t see another way. Until Paul shouted in a loud voice: “Don’t kill yourself, we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights. The lights came on for him and revealed no one had escaped. Paul’s intervention prevented suicide because he revealed the situation wasn’t as the jailer thought, not only were all the prisoners there, but what Paul said carried even greater weight, “we are all here.” It’s what we’d like for the person who is thinking about suicide to really understand: we are all here, here for you, here with you, and we want you to stay here with us. If it’s prison, we are all here for you, if your life feels like a building on fire, we are all here with you, we’ll find a way out. If you think there isn’t any other option, we are all here for you and we want you, we beg of you to stay here with us. It will get better. Keep fighting, keep hoping, and we will keep praying, keep singing until the darkness passes and the light comes, and the way out is clear, or at least clear enough.
Paul and Silas were out of prison, the jailer put away his sword, he took Paul and Silas home to meet his family, he cared for them, fed them, and all his family became believers in the God of hope. God saved Paul and Silas with an earthquake and broken chains. God saved the jailer
because Paul called out with a strong human word of hope: “Don’t yourself! Stay with us.” And the path was found. You may be God’s super natural power to help someone stay alive. Call for light,
beloved. Call for life.
 David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 2006.