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I've Been Changed

To say that I am rarely surprised by anything, may seem the jaded response of one who has been swept up in tragedy and death too many times. But in truth, SUICIDE is not a word, thought, or discussion that surprises me. Neither am I shocked by the answers to the question I have asked thousands of times, “Are you thinking of suicide?” In 2019, I had to contend with forty-one completed suicides. Instead of an intervention to stop a suicide, I was called after the fact to assist family and friends, the survivors of tragic loss. The thirty-ninth loss in 2019 occurred in October and was the youngest, a 10-year-old boy. Sitting in a circle with a dozen of his friends at the Boys and Girls Club I knew they were struggling to wrap their minds around why their friend was gone. I was struggling too. But it wasn’t from the shock of a young child’s death. I was grieved by the loss, but I was not shocked. The struggle could be better described as a wrestling within my heart that began to surface six months earlier with the word my pastor shared with me.

Three days before Easter 2019 I was called to a Christian college campus where a 19-year-old young man had taken his life. I had been working the first half of that week with young people on other campuses and First Responder agencies. My mind was overwhelmed with emotion as I drove the three-hour ride on Interstate 20 to Augusta, Georgia. I called my pastor to ask for his prayers. I told him my heart was heavy, more so than it has ever been. He could tell from the crack in my voice that tears were streaming down my cheek. I was in route to the tenth suicide of the year, and it was only April. He said a word that spoke directly to my wrestling heart, “Lou, I would rather your heart be heavy, than hard. God can use heavy.” I pulled over at a rest station and sent out a quick Facebook post. “To those who know what I do, please pray.”

I arrived on the campus of Paine College not knowing anything about the school. The campus pastor greeted me as I stepped out of my truck. We spoke briefly about the student that had died and I asked about the school. He shared the history. In his words, “the College was founded in 1882 by the leadership of the Methodist Episcopal Church to address the educational and spiritual needs of freed slaves.” As I followed the pastor into the chapel, I glanced at my phone and saw that more than two hundred people were praying for me and the heartbreak into which I was walking. As I entered the chapel foyer, I heard singing. A young man was leading his friends in an old spiritual that I had never heard. They were singing in the vernacular of their culture. As they sang peace flooded my heart and again tears welled in my eyes. “I – I – I, I know I’ve been changed, the angels in heaven done signed my name.”

More people gathered, students, faculty, and staff. The president stood and briefly shared powerful words of comfort. Then he introduced me saying, “We have asked for help at this challenging time.” The Chaplain said a prayer and handed me the microphone. I spoke for thirty minutes offering hope and support. My associate spoke a few minutes and handed out resource material for those in crisis. The Chaplain gave a closing prayer and began to sing again. “I – I – I, I know I’ve been changed, the angels in heaven done signed my name.”

After the meeting, the young man who had led the singing with his friends came to me. His name was Donovan. He said, “Thank you for being here.” I looked him in the eye and asked, “do you know what Genesis 33:10 says?’ He shook his head, no. I said, “Today, you have reminded me of that verse. It says, “For to see your face is to see the face of God.” Tears began to flow from his eyes just as they had from mine. These wonderful, broken-hearted people were looking to me to bring them hope and assurance, but I was the one who received. I found strength was already there and it bolstered once again my faith in the power of prayer and the mighty Word of God. I was changing.

The struggle that had been simmering in my spirit for seven years was beginning to reach a boiling point. I had hoped when I founded Armed Forces Mission in 2012 to address the issue of veteran and first responder suicide that the faith community would take the lead in rallying individuals to gain the skills that save lives. I was certain that most churches would clearly see the need and host our training in suicide intervention. It did not happen in the proactive way that I had hoped. Most invites were reactive. My former home church invited me to conduct a training two months after a thirteen-year-old took his life on Easter Sunday 2015. I had been knocking on the church door for three years. It was then I realized that we must expand our focus beyond veterans and first responders to all people at risk. Most recently another church reached out after the loss of a member. While I was thankful for the opportunity to train the faith community, I was saddened at what cost the training took place. The faith community to a great extent has been reactive rather than proactive regarding the culture of suicide. Therefore, by default the majority of the 22,000 individuals that have participated in the Intervene Challenge have done so in secular venues. I am grateful for every single participant. But in such venues participants are often there because it is a mandate of their employer; be it the military, secular universities, public schools, or the hundreds of law enforcement agencies that we have trained.

With such invites there is a clear expectation that any discussion of faith (if it is discussed at all) will be cursory and not specific to my own faith or any particular faith. The focus is to be mental health, not spiritual health. I respect and have always honored that requirement, otherwise I will never be invited to return. This has been the rub for me. I know from my own experience and thousands of one-on-one interventions that mental health and spiritual health go hand in hand. Often times I will drop hints and speak in parables just as Jesus did. I will talk about what I had learned from an informative book I am reading without referencing the actual Bible verse. My hope has been that somehow those that have ears to ear will understand that there is always one reason to live, even when a person at risk may have thirteen reasons why they think suicide is the only option.

In March of 2017, I posted extensively my concerns about the Netflix release of the movie “13 Reasons Why”. It was a graphic display of suicide and the thirteen reasons a young person took her life. My concern was the absence of hope. But this has always been my concern – a lack of hope. Proverbs 29:19 reminds us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Thoughts of suicide cloud one’s vision that things can ever be better and the light of hope fades into the seemingly unending despair. I assumed 2019 would be the most challenging year I would ever experience in the work I do. I had hoped 2019 was an anomaly and things would get better. I never imagined that it could get worse. Then COVID hit.

The day that Governor Brian Kemp declared an "unprecedented" public health emergency I was training thirty teachers and counselors in north Georgia. Two days later on March 16, 2020, the Governor ordered all public schools, colleges, and universities in the state closed. I remember the day because it was also my 57th birthday. As I write these words the week before Easter 2022, my mind goes back to Donavon and the words he sang. “I…I…I, I know I’ve been changed.”

In the two years since COVID began I have been on the scene, conducted death notifications, officiated funerals of suicide victims or counseled families seventy-two times because of suicide. That’s seventy-two completed suicides, in addition to the hundreds of interventions I have conducted in that time for others in crisis. I have always considered myself to be a positive person. Yet over the last two years I have thought often of a quote by comedian Lily Tomlin, “Things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse.”

Yes, I have changed. Perhaps you have changed too. How can we not be changed with all that is happening in our world today? All of us know someone that has died in the prime of life since 2020. I still vividly recall the conversation with a young lady that was suicidal because she blamed herself for her grandmother’s death from COVID. Many of us have been hospitalized wondering if we too might die. My wife and I were hospitalized, and five months later still struggle to do normal daily activities.

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher declared, “Change is the only constant in life.” He was partially correct. Change is a certainty, but not the only constant. Hebrews 13:8 reminds us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” But I have changed and the time has come for the church to change. If we stay the same, we die.

I have been changed by my experiences working in the field of suicide intervention these past ten years, but it is for the better. I have greater empathy for others in the struggles of life. I have discovered my life calling. I have learned the meaning of “life more abundant” even when abundance seems the very thing that is slipping from our grasp. Most of all I have discovered a strength to courageously share with others that in those times when we rationalize all the reasons we have to die, there is always ONE reason to live.

Taking the step toward speaking the truth takes more courage today than it ever has. It is a step we rarely do in our own strength. But the peace we find when we take that step overcomes the fear and we find ourselves operating in a realm beyond the mental and the physical. We begin to operate in the realm of the Spirit – this is where real life begins. This is the heart of the gospel. I was blind, but now I see, I was dead but now I live. Do we need to discuss mental health? Absolutely! Do people often need medication for anxiety? Sure they do. But if that is all we do to address our challenges the problem remains. True faith in Almighty God is the very thing which is needed. The prophet Zechariah decared it is “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.”

The truth is, out of the more than 1600 suicide interventions I have conducted I have never saved anyone. I have simply been on a journey that has allowed me to be a witness to what the Great Physician is doing. It is a journey I pray the faith community will join me in. I am grateful for those within this community that have realized their own calling and have been such an inspiration to me. I think of my friend Sandy. When I was introduced to Sandy, I assumed she was another survivor looking for answers, needing my help with words of comfort and the often-unanswerable question of why. Instead, she was the one who gave me peace, she was one completely trusting even in the face of tragedy. In her I have seen the face of God. Through her lived experiences I have seen the power of God to restore the brokenhearted. Tragedy rarely shocks and surprises me, but triumph and resilience often do. Sandy is one of many that have shocked me over the years. Collectively they remind me of the story of Esther. “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise from another place…And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” My heart is strangely warmed when I see individuals that have experienced tragedy standing tall still trusting in God. In my mind they stand as shinning examples in the order of those great heroes of the faith that we see in Hebrews chapter eleven.

I have tried over the years to be “as wise as a serpent, and harmless as a dove.” I have covertly planted seeds where I could. But I can no longer be silent. I can no longer speak in parables. People are dying from hopelessness. They need to know there is one reason to live. We are living in a day when Jesus words in John 16:25 would be more appropriate. “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.” That which is heavy on my heart today is that the hour is upon us. The time has come to borrow from 1 Peter 3:15, to “be ready always to give an answer…for the hope that is in you” and to do so with “meekness and fear” but to do so nonetheless.

My hope writing One Reason to Live is that those who read the pages that follow would by the grace of God rise up in the hurting world that is all around to be a light on a hill that cannot be hidden, a beacon of hope guiding others to the only save harbor that is found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. To many people such words are foolishness, but to those that are saved it will prove to be the power of God – the One reason to live.

The above blog is the preface to my next book One Reason to Live available this Fall to rally the faith community as a network of care for those that struggle with suicidal thoughts. Stay tuned!

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