Rick Warren's youngest son Matthew killed himself on Friday night. In a letter to his congregation Pastor Warren wrote:
"In spite of America's best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life."
To Rick and Kay, know that we are praying for you today and our hearts are breaking for the loss of your beloved Matthew and the grief you are experiencing. You don't have time to be online, but I can tell you that literally millions of people are sending you their prayers and love, and in the coming hours, days, weeks, months and years that you will be living with this grief, please let our prayers and love be part of what holds you up and, eventually, offers you healing.
Rick's letter to his congregation reminds us that he is a pastor to his core. He was completely transparent about what had happened, honest in his grief and open about his need for support.
Pastor Warren is being a pastor when he tells his congregation how he is devastated by grief, how he needs the prayers of his congregation, by admitting his dark night of the soul that anyone who underwent such a loss would experience. He is being human for all of us to see.
From his experience with Matthew, he is well aware that there are millions of Americans who are living with mental illness themselves, have loved ones who are living with mental illness, as well as those who have lost loved ones suffering from mental illness to suicide. He is also speaking for and to them as he goes through his own tragedy.
Stating clearly that he and Kay had done everything they could do for their son and still could not prevent his suicide helps all those who have experienced similar tragedy. Rick Warren's experience and words won't take away any of the heart break, but it will take away the shadow of stigma that mental illness and suicide still can hold in our society.
There is a strain of thought within Christianity that holds that those who commit suicide cannot go to heaven. This horrible belief adds insult to injury. Illness is illness -- just as we should never say that someone who died of any physical illness can't go to heaven, it is equally outrageous to say that someone who had died as the result of a mental illness can't go to heaven.
Matthew told his father that he felt sure he would go to heaven. By sharing those words, and Matthews sense of assurance, Pastor Warren is offering comfort to all those who have lost a loved one to suicide, and reminding them of the loving God who welcomes all the broken souls home -- no matter how they die.
Church will be emotional for Rick and Kay today and for the months to come. My feeling is that even in the midst of the worst kind of tragedy, Pastor Warren will be at his best. He will pastor to his congregation, and to the nation, by showing us that grief, death, and mourning are something not to be hidden or ashamed of, but that they are part of what it means to live in this broken yet wonderful world. He will show us that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. His deep faith will help us to remember that God walks with us even in the shadow of death.
The great William Sloan Coffin is revered for his ministry of justice and peace at Yale and Riverside Church, yet his most referenced sermon is the one he delivered just 10 days after his son Alex died in a car crash. In it he wrote:
Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms:
"The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places."
My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.
Rick and Kay, God's heart and all of our hearts are breaking with you and all those who have lost a loved one to suicide today. We pray for strength and love to surround you, your family and your congregation in this most tragic time.