Rob Lee: Dear Uncle John - Suicide and the Love of God
Dear Uncle John,
I lashed out the other day because of your life, because of my life, because of our shared experience surrounding suicide. I dropped the F-bomb to a guy who tried to say you and others who committed suicide were in hell. As an ordained minister, it came as a surprise to many on Twitter. The tweet now has some 219 thousand likes and I've found both critique and celebration of my language. I know you would have been proud because I first heard that word around you. As my dad said, you'd be spinning circles in the driveway of my critics, you were that protective, even if your life was cut incredibly short.
You didn't get much of a service to celebrate your life. Like your life it was beautiful and short. There was no mention of the demons you faced or the realities of your death. To this day, I don't even have all the answers as to your death. But I do know this, you were beloved by God and through your death the wheels in my theological mind lurched forward and started turning. The day you died I was picked up not by my grandmother who normally picked up my brother and me from school, but instead by my parents. I was the last to find out about your death. My little brother's private school (read: Christian fundamentalist private school) teacher had told him one time that people who committed suicide were in hell. He was in the 4th grade. I remember him asking that day if you were in hell.
My parents in their despair didn't know what to say or how to say it. But I remember in that instance saying, "There is no way John is in hell, God wouldn't do that to him." I credit this as the moment my theological mind's flame took hold of me. I began to think critically about everything I had been told at my private Christian school. If they could be wrong about God on this could they be wrong about God on other things? Could God be working and moving within my life to say to me "There is more than this world than meets the eye, my child"?
Regardless of every day that I march farther away from that moment I will never forget how God moved to change my perception of a suicide. I never realized how close that would be to my own story, my own reality, and my own perception of the world. But in it all I'm convinced that God did not participate in your condemnation that day. Instead, I am convinced that God embraced you in the loving arms of a parent embracing a child who was hurt and broken.
As I write this letter I begin to ask others, where have your theological wheels started to turn surrounding mental illness? Where was God present for you in moments of pain, heartache, and even brushes with death? I can assure you that if you look around, God was there, present, and redeeming. The absence of God is found simply because we didn't look hard enough. At times, that can be crippling, because it makes us feel inadequate if we can't find God amidst the vast wasteland of the mental health care complex. But my hope is that we can keep searching for traces of God, in the silence, in the pain, and even in the doubt. Even when God seems as absent as the stability we once knew.
Uncle John, you never got the chance to see the things any father or uncle would want to see. You never had the opportunity to meet grandchildren or witness weddings, or care for parents in their old age. The Lee family is left with a hole where you should be, a gaping hole that needs to be addressed. But we, like other families often fail to address that reality. The greatest fear I have is that we equate your life now with your death. But perhaps we could shift the conversation from suicide as the defining moment of your life to other realities that made you special. John, you loved music, loved your family, and lived an interesting life. So if anything we can mark those as moments of grace in spite of a tragic and horrific end. If theology has taught me anything, it's that the horrific nature of our realities is met with the full force of God's abiding love. The abiding love that takes suicide and can even redeem it for those left behind if we work at it. I know I can't change what happened that November day in 2004, but I do know this: my response can be faithful.
I must ask how can our response be faithful to the crisis of mental health? How can our response to your reality be beautifully restored to what God has in mind for us? I'm convinced that neither height nor depth can keep us from the love of God made evident in Christ Jesus. And it is in that conviction that I see the redeemed and restored John Lee. He was my uncle and, by God, if our Deity sent him to hell then that is a pretty inconsiderate and small deity. That god is a god I want nothing to do with. But the God I have come to know in Jesus Christ, that God's love is big and wide and full. Full enough for the pain of suicide, both attempted and completed.
When my time is committed to posterity as all our time will be, I hope it can be said that I was right about you, Uncle John. When the dying of the light comes for me, I want to see you with my Lord, knowing that you were embraced and loved to the end and even after the end. Really, and truly, that is the heart of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When we were unlovable, God became like us. When we ourselves couldn't redeem Creation, Christ did that for us. We must be thankful that in time, God will bring to completion all things. In time, God will make John's life, my life, your life more succinct with the strong hope of the resurrection.
Perhaps that's where our hope lies, not in Lexapro or in Lithium, but in the life of Jesus Christ. I'm not dismantling the use of medication, they are valuable and beautiful things. What I am suggesting is that those medications are given new context when we have resurrection to look forward to, both here and now and then and there.
Uncle John, if by some chance you can see this letter and know how we feel here, may you always know that you are still loved and cherished by so many. We have not forgotten and for your sake and ours we will never forget. We have commended you to God and God has embraced you, but that doesn't make it any easier for your children or your family. But I do want you to know this: your death has compelled me to live life more fully, more completely, healthier. I know we suffer from similar ills, and our destinies for now are quite different, but I know you have made a difference.
If anything is taken from these pages it should be that God's embrace is a big embrace. The resurrection is our greatest hope and in that hope we will redeemed. As I sit on my porch writing this letter I can't help but think of that Grateful Dead song, "Come hear uncle John's band by the riverside, got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide." I look forward to the day of redemption down by the riverside where I will see my uncle again, and more fully live into the words of the creed, "In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone."
I will always love you, I will always see you.
With all the love I can muster,
 Grateful Dead, Uncle John's Band.
 A New Creed. The United Church of Canada. (1968)