I have long had a love affair with all things Greek: Greek cuisine, modern and ancient history, the ancient Koine language, mythology, as well as its ancient philosophers, playwrights, and important figures to European development. I find these ancient connections with the development of modern thought in philosophy, politics, arts, and sciences fascinating. It is a part of the world that holds a unique place in the development of Western civilization.
However, it has been some time since I delved into much of anything dealing with these subjects. My eclectic interests of late have taken me into 18th and 19th century American and European history. This period, of course, has direct ties with and influences from the ancient Greek civilization. I find it all fascinating. Little did I know that this fascination would come into play with my dealings with a troubled young man recently.
For anonymity sake, we will call this young man Stephen. I had just recently taken a part-time administrative position at the church we attend (Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Washington). I was posting some things on the bulletin board near our main entrance when this young man walked in with one of our church members, Bill.
Bill and Stephen walked up to me and Bill said to Stephen, “Hey! Here’s is someone you can talk to. He used to be a pastor.”
Turning toward me, Bill introduced his new companion, “Ron, this is Stephen. I just met him on my way in and he really needs someone to talk to, do you have time to talk to him? I’m in charge of Celebrate Recovery and we’re just about ready to get started.”
Bill turned back to Stephen, “If you want, after talking to Ron, why don’t you join us in the Fellowship Hall right around the corner over there? We have dinner together and you are welcome to come eat with us.” Bill pointed to a hall off the entry way they had just passed.
Stephen, looking down at the floor, timidly replied, “We’ll see. Maybe.”
As Bill turned to leave us, I held out my hand to Stephen and said, “Hi, Stephen. I’m Ron. How can I help you?“
Stephen, with his eyes not leaving the floor, replied, “I just need someone to talk to. Is there some place private we can go to talk?“
My office is not a private one. It is a center of activity. My mind quickly turned to one of the many rooms located on an upper floor of our building. “Sure. Let’s go upstairs. There’s bound to be a quiet room up there we can find.”
As I led our way up the stairwell just around the corner from us, I tried to make Stephen feel at ease with some small talk. “Bill is a great guy. The ministry he helps lead, Celebrate Recovery, is wonderful. They start out with a meal together. If you’re hungry and want to discover some new friends, I would highly recommend going. You’ll find a lot of good people there. We are all recovering from something and that is a good place to deal with whatever it may be.”
I entered the first empty room and turned on the light. Then I stepped aside as Stephen entered the room. I gently swung the door shut but left it partially open in case of an emergency. It was already apparent to me that Stephen was really struggling with something. We seemed weighted down by the world. The air in the room grew heavy.
As we each found a seat, I started by asking, “So, Stephen, how can I help you? What do you want to talk with me about?“
Stephen hesitated. “I just came here because I needed someone to talk to. I don’t know the difference between a pastor or a priest. I haven’t been to church since I was really little.”
He let his words fall to the floor and became quiet. I waited. After a few moments, he continued, “I really don’t know where to begin.“ He paused. Then blurted out, “I guess I just need to say it. What do you think about suicide?“
I thought to myself, “Wow. What a way to start work back at a church!“ However, I kept my composure and remained calm and reassuring. I did not know at what stage of threat Stephen was to himself or if he was even referring to himself. So, I probed with a question to get Stephen to talk and be more specific about what he was thinking and feeling.
I answered, “I’m not sure I understand. Do you mean, what do I personally think about suicide? Or, are you wondering what God thinks about suicide?“
Then, trying to lighten the approach to a very heavy subject, I said, “As for myself, personally, I think death in any form sucks…except, perhaps, in my very old age in my sleep.”
Stephen cracked a small smile. “I guess I’m wondering what God thinks,” he replied.
“Well, without going into a long and boring theological explanation,” I began, “the Bible paints a picture of what God had in mind for humanity from the very beginning. It is pictured in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. Humankind lived in perfect harmony with God, nature and one another. However, humankind’s rebellion brought not only separation from God but also division and conflict with one another and even with nature. One of the outcomes of this is also division and conflict with our own self.”
I paused and asked, “Do you kind of understand that picture?“
I continued, “Jesus was sent by God to reveal to us what God had in mind for us. Not only that, but Jesus made it possible that we could be healed and restored in our relationship with God, one another, and even with ourselves. In fact, Jesus promises a restoration of that perfect harmony one day. Until then, life is a spiritual battle of restoring God’s order as he intended it from the beginning.”
I paused for a second to see if Stephen was tracking. He seemed deeply interested in what I had to say. So I went on.
“Stephen, I believe that many who attempt suicide do so out of the desperation of their brokenness. It is not what God wants for any of us and it grieves His heart when we destroy what he created. At the same time, I have to recognize that every individual is unique and the reasons that lead someone to such desperate action cannot be judged by any human. So, God will deal with each individual out of His own mercy and love for them. If you’re wondering if I believe that a person is automatically destined to hell because they commit suicide, I would say, ‘No.’ Only God is judge and only he knows what is going on in a person’s heart and mind at that point.”
I turned toward Stephen and asked, “Many times thoughts of suicide are driven by a sense of great loss. Have you experienced a great loss or sense of loss lately that makes you feel like life is hopeless and purposeless?‘
Stephen thought for a moment and then said, “No. Not really.”
“Then what do you think makes you feel like life is so pointless?” I asked.
Stephen grew quiet. I could tell he was pondering what to say.
Finally, the words spilled out, “I guess pretty much my whole life. My parents ruined themselves financially and so I am not able to go to college even though I and my sisters did really well in High School. My sisters and I don’t have anything to do with our parents. Their lives are all screwed up and we’ve realized that we grew up in a really messed up family. So we are all angry at our parents.”
“How old are you, Stephen,” I probed.
“Nineteen,” he answered.
“Well, there is still plenty of time to go to school and there are lots of creative ways to pay your way through school,” I offered.
“Yeah, well, there is something more.” Stephen grew solemn again as he gathered his thoughts. “I did something really awful to someone,” he finally said.
“What was it that you did? Did you physically hurt someone? Did you steal from them? What was so awful?” I asked.
“It was nothing illegal. But it was something really bad. I had this friend that I worked with and did something really bad to him. You see, he was the manager of the store and we got to be really good friends. We did a lot of stuff together outside of work. I thought we were having a great time but then he started to grow really distant. Pretty soon he didn’t want to spend any time with me. He was pretty much the only friend I had…have had.”
Stephen fell silent for a moment and I could see tears in his eyes. “I don’t know what I did to make him angry. But he would not talk to me or anything. I would call and he would not answer. I left messages but he never called back. So, I thought the only way to get his attention was to make him think that I was dead. So, I had my sister call him and tell him that I had committed suicide because I was so sad.“
Stephen looked at me to see if I would react to this news. I calmly replied, “Go on. What happened next?“
“Well, my friend became really upset because he thought that he had caused me to kill myself. Then, when I finally let him know that I was really alive and had not killed myself, he grew even more angry. Now, it’s worse than our relationship was before and now I’m thinking that it would have been better to actually have done it. I’ve screwed up my life.”
I let a moment go by before responding. “Stephen, when we began I asked you if you had experienced any losses in your life. At that time you told me that you did not think so. However, listening to your story, I am hearing you tell me of three very great significant losses in your life. All of these have happened very recently: First, you are grieving the loss of your family and the relationship you thought you had or wish you had with your parents. Second, you are grieving the loss of a dream; a dream to go to school. Third, you are grieving the death of a relationship with a very close friend. Stephen, that is a great amount of loss for anyone to have to deal with in their life let alone someone as young as you. It is no wonder to me, then, that you feel life is pointless, hopeless and purposeless. Do you understand what I am saying and do you think what I am saying is hitting home?“
“Yeah,” Stephen softly replied.
“You are only 19 years old. I’m 49. I can tell you that there is a lot of life yet ahead of you. Life is rough and tough. No one comes out unbroken. In fact, the reason why I am in a faith community is because I believe that broken lives can be mended and put back together again with God’s help. I believe Jesus not only shows us the way but also provides the way to become whole again. Our whole church is full of broken people. We are all at different places along the road to recovery. You cannot get through life without experiencing brokenness. That is what you are experiencing.”
“Stephen, I cannot offer you any quick-fix formulas, but I can tell you that you are just beginning to write your own life story. I believe that God wants to be a part of writing the stories of our lives. I don’t think your story is over yet. It seems hard now, but this is not the end of the story. It might be one of your darkest chapters, but it is not the final chapter. I want to encourage you to consider allowing God to be a part of your life so that he can help put the broken pieces your life back together. He has a different story to write than the one you may be thinking of right now.”
“What do you think about what I’ve said so far?“ I wanted to offer Stephen a chance to respond.
“People have been telling me that maybe I need to consider religion,” Stephen began. “Some of my friends say that it would help me a lot.”
“Well, if you mean by ‘religion’ a formulaic way of living your life within religious ritual, then I cannot help you there. Personally, I have not found that satisfying. However, I like to talk less in terms of the word religion and more about relationship. It is all about having a relationship with God that heals the division and distance between us and God, us and others, and even us and our own selves.“
I wanted to draw some kind of story or parallel that might capture his attention. It was at this point that my love for Greek invaded my consciousness.
“Personally, I think that without God, life is like a Greek tragedy play by Euripides. Humankind stands no chance against the chaos of life and capriciousness of its gods. We are all doomed. This would make life seem pointless. How can we ever win? Why keep going? We are no better than Sisyphus trying to endlessly push the bolder up the mountain only to have it come crashing down on us again. Is our only meaning to be found in the eternal struggle? Is that all that is left of life is to get up again and start pushing the bolder back up the mountain? I don’t think so. I think that there is a better way. For me, I have found it in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and in community with other believers who are on the same journey. We are all at different places on that journey, but we all see with hope the opportunity to be healed and made whole again.”
I knew that I had just unloaded a lot, so I wanted to take a moment to see if Stephen was tracking with me or if I had just lost him with all the Greek history and mythology.
“What do you think about what I’ve said?” I offered.
“You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about,” he replied. “I need to take some time to consider it. I appreciate your time and don’t want to keep you any longer. You have really helped me.”
“I’m glad that I was able to help,” I returned. “I really want to encourage you to consider taking Bill up on his offer for dinner. I think you’ll have a great opportunity to meet some new friends there. Also, we have a counseling center here and I would also encourage you to seek further counseling and help with a professional. Would you like me to help you with that?“
Stephen smiled a weak smile, “No. I’ll be alright. I just needed someone to talk to and this really helped. By the way, do you always teach Greek when you counsel people?“
I chuckled, “No. I’m sorry. I have an odd education background and love pretty much all things Greek. I got really caught up into it when I was in college. I don’t usually try to bore people with Greek history or philosophy.”
“That OK,” Stephen replied. “You see, that is my favorite subject and it is the direction I wanted to go into for college and then graduate studies. My dream is to one day teach Greek history and philosophy. So, I loved your reference to Euripides and Sisyphus. I’ve not heard many people refer to them before in a conversation.”
I was surprised. “You know. I don’t think you’re meeting me today and, out of all the people here at the church that you could have talked to you, that you talked with me was by accident. You see, if God is actively writing my story, which I believe He is, then part of my story for today was a divine appointment with a young man named, Stephen. Can I pray with you before you leave?“
“Sure. I would like that,” Stephen replied.
The room seemed a little lighter when Stephen left. To be sure, his troubles had not vanished and there was still a rough course in front of him. I think about him and pray for him each day since our encounter. Stephen reminds me that our world is full of people who live completely or partially broken lives. We are all in need of repair and renewal. At the same time, even people on their own journey toward wholeness can be used to point out the path to healing for others who are searching. And they may even engage Euripides to help do it.
©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)