By Frank McCormack
“I’ve never preached on this subject at a seminary before. I’ve spoken on it in churches a few times, but not often. For you see, five years and two months ago, my daughter left her family behind when she committed suicide. That ‘left behind’ feeling still affects us to this day.”
Frank Page, president and CEO of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, launched the topic of his message at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Leavell Chapel Jan. 27 with those poignant words.
He described how, in late 2009, he received a call from his oldest daughter, Melissa.
“It had been a tumultuous few weeks prior to that,” Page said. “But believe me, my antenna went up when she said, ‘Daddy, I love you.’ I said, ‘Baby, I love you.’ She said, ‘Daddy, tell mama and the girls I love them too.’ I said, ‘Honey, I’m not going to do that. You tell them that.’ ‘Daddy, I can’t. I love you, daddy.’ Click.”
Page said he immediately began calling and texting Melissa, with no answer. A few minutes later, he received a call from a member of his church who was Melissa’s neighbor. “Pastor, there’s an ambulance. Please, what’s going on at Melissa’s house?” she asked.
Page rushed to his daughter’s house only to be met by a police office who said Melissa was at the hospital. He then rushed to the hospital, where a physician and member of his church met him and said, simply, “Oh pastor, I’m so sorry.”
“What did I do? What do you do when you hear something like that? Your firstborn baby has killed herself. I didn’t know what to do, so I did what I knew to do. That was to quote scripture,” Page said. “God didn’t need me to quote it to him, but I needed to hear that word from the Lord.”
So Page fell to his knees in a secluded hospital room and quoted Job 1:21, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” The second scripture to come to mind was John 14:1-3, “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would’ve told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go, I will come again and will receive you unto myself. That where I am you may be also.”
Page’s message from John 14:1-3, framed by the story of his daughter’s death, was weighty and timely, given the epidemic in the United States today of depression, mental illness and suicide.
“Out of all people groups, all races, all ethnic groups, all socio-economic levels, it is epidemic,” he said. “In some parts of our country more so than others. Particularly among the younger demographic. In fact, it has taken a massive jump over the past few years among young women ages 18 to 29.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2012 (the latest record available) the suicide rate in the United States was 12.6 deaths per 100,000 Americans. That’s the highest suicide rate in 25 years. In 2012, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death among Americans. According to the organization Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), 15 percent of people who are clinically depressed die by suicide. Ninety percent who die by suicide have an existing mental illness or substance abuse problem at the time of death. Also according to SAVE, one in 65,000 children ages 10 to 14 die each year by suicide.
In light of that suicide epidemic in the United States, Page offered four words from the John 14 passage. He first pointed to a “word of peace.”
“Jesus said in that powerful Johannine passage, ‘Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me,’” Page said. “He knew we would be troubled. … It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.”
Page also pointed to John 16:13: “In this life you will have tribulation.”
“Some of you have very deep scars of difficulty that have already beset you, even in your young lives,” Page told the seminary students gathered. “We all struggle in life, but our Lord speaks a word of peace. ‘I want to help you through that. You need to believe in God and believe in me.’ In that, you will find solace. In that, you will find a help which you cannot find anywhere else.”
To this point, Page said ministers and believe in general must be ready to confront and refute bad theology that declares suicide an unpardonable sin.
“Teach the word that says if salvation is true it is forever,” he said.
He also challenged pastors to be deliberate about teaching believers to effectively minister to those going through difficult times, to be careful in what they say, and to avoid “trite platitudes” that are often untrue and many times inappropriate. One common, hurtful platitude is “You just need to snap out of it.”
“Don’t ever say that,” Page said. “If they could snap out of it, they would snap out of it.”
He also said it’s important to practice and teach the ministry of presence.
“The Bible says we are to provide the comfort we received ourselves. It is our job to give that word of peace and comfort the Lord so desperately wishes people to have,” he said.
Secondly, Page pointed to a word of preparation in John 14:2.
“‘I go to prepare a place for you,’” Page emphasized. “My friends, those who know him have a place in heaven, and I know my baby is in heaven now.”
There’s also a word of promise, found in John 14:3 — “If I go … I will come again.”
Unfortunately, Page said, the second coming of Christ is an often overlooked matter of theology.
“It has just been left on the dusty shelf of theology,” he said. “History is not cyclical. It is linear. It is going somewhere. It is headed for a collision course with eternity, and we need to preach it.”
Finally, Page emphasized a word of presence at the end of verse 3 — “that you also may be where I am.” He also shared Psalm 46:1 as a word about God’s presence. Persons struggling with depression and considering suicide, and those left behind following a suicide desperately need to experience that presence, Page said.
“They need to know there’s a God who will love them and care for them. There is a God who will be there for them in the good times and the bad,” he said. “Suicide is a horrible experience, but it happens. Marriages fail. The instances of divorce among those who have experienced suicide in the immediate family dramatically increases. Suicides themselves dramatically increase among survivors with a suicide in the family. There are ongoing consequences of any kind of tragedy, but particularly suicide.
“People need to know that the only place you will find hope is in the Lord. He will be with you,” he said.
Page chronicled the story of his daughter, Melissa, and his family’s journey since her death in the book, “Melissa: A Father’s Lessons from a Daughter’s Suicide.”