My phone rang about 3:00 last Saturday afternoon. It was Arthur. I could tell he was upset.
“Have you heard the news… about Rick Warren?” he asked.
I had not. From Arthur’s tone, however, it seemed clear that the news was bad. I braced myself for the worst.
Had Pastor Rick been killed? Or had he, like so many other prominent Christian leaders, fallen prey, God forbid, to the enticements of money or sex or power? I dreaded to hear what Arthur was about to tell me, and yet I wanted to know, to get past the initial shock in order to begin to assess the damage and consider the consequences.
There was a long pause. Then I heard some sounds I could not immediately identify. At first I thought they were coming from the phone itself, some sort of electronic intrusion into the invisible line connecting Arthur and me. As I listened, however, I started to recognize what I was hearing. They were the sounds of a man sobbing.
Arthur cleared his throat, then said, “His twenty-seven year old son killed himself last night.”
“Oh my,” I said. “That’s terrible.”
There was another pause, then the muted half-sobs of someone who felt the need to cry but was trying to hold it in and wait it out.
“Yes, so sad,” Arthur said eventually. “Well, I saw you working in your garden when I drove by a little while ago. Since I just heard the news on the radio, I figured you hadn’t gotten word yet. That’s why I called.”
“I’m glad you did,” I told him. “We all need to pray for Rick and Kay.”
Rick and Kay, I thought. Neither Arthur nor I had ever met Rick Warren, but like most Americans, we knew him through his books or one of his many appearances on TV. This generation speaks of Rick and Kay the way an earlier generation spoke of Billy and Ruth. More than one poll suggested, in fact, that Rick Warren’s name recognition and influence as a Christian leader in America was second only to that of Billy Graham.
Arthur was not a cheerleader for Rick Warren. I had read Warren’s book called The Purpose Driven Life. Arthur had not. I follow Rick on Twitter. Arthur does not. If I find the phenomenon of Christian celebrities discomfiting (and I do), Arthur believes it is harmful to the cause of Christ and harbors deep cynicism toward most Christian personalities. Some he virtually detests for what he calls their “toxic” effect on the body of Christ.
Whatever Arthur may have thought about the “evangelical cult of personality” in general, I never sensed any deep-seated animosity toward Rick Warren. In fact, when Warren’s name came up in recent conversations, I detected a growing appreciation on Arthur’s part for his personal integrity and for his principled stand on social issues, even when Arthur disagreed with the position Rick advocated. He was particularly impressed with the prayer Pastor Rick offered at President Obama’s first inauguration.
Still, I was a bit surprised at the depth of emotion he was showing in response to the news of Matthew Warren’s suicide.
“You seem to be taking this awfully hard, Arthur,” I said. “Any particular reason?”
“I can’t imagine any greater pain for a parent to bear than this,” he said.
I tried to say something like, “Yes, I know,” but found that I couldn’t make the sound come out. The enormity of the Warrens’ situation washed over me, and I was silent in the face of it. I nodded my head, as though Arthur could see my response, and held my lower lip between my teeth to keep it from trembling.
“And,” he went on, “they have to bear it all under the scrutiny of the press and those vultures who will try to find something in this to use to undermine Warren’s ministry. That family is going to need God’s grace in supernatural abundance.”
He paused. I thought he had finished his point. Before I could respond, however, he spoke again.
“More than that, I know what it feels like to lose hope.”
I knew what he meant. One afternoon last winter, I had picked Arthur up at the garage where he had left his car for some repairs that would take a couple of days. As we drove back to his apartment, our conversation turned to the subject of depression.
We agreed that the number of people struggling with depression and other debilitating forms of mental illness seemed to be on the rise, even, and some might say especially, in evangelical churches. Arthur acknowledged his own tendencies in that area. I knew something of Arthur’s inclination to mood swings. I had seen some of that during our trip to Great Britain a few years ago. But I had no idea just how serious the situation could be.
Sitting there in my car as twilight fell around us, Arthur told me of a period in his life, a year after he lost his job, just after Ellie finished her regimen of chemotherapy, when the bottom fell out. He spoke of the times he considered all the options available to him in his desire to end his personal pain.
The day after that conversation in my car, Arthur sent me a copy of an article he had just read in Christianity Today. It was titled “The Depression Epidemic,” and it came out in March 2009, just about the time Arthur was close to the bottom of his “slough of despond.” He had highlighted portions of two paragraphs. The first was this.
Our jobs are not secure, and due to specialization, many of us do not have the flexibility to move easily and quickly from one job to another. We work long hours… . We compare ourselves with other colleagues when comparisons are fruitless, or find ourselves being compared unfairly. When we come up short, we feel the burden of unrealistic expectations we have placed on ourselves or have received from others. We are given responsibilities with little authority and even fewer resources, and feel we have no control over job expectations or even how we use our work time. Many of us are subject to sometimes dehumanizing corporate or economic systems not of our own making and seemingly beyond our influence. We feel small, insignificant, and expendable.
In the margin alongside that paragraph, Arthur had written one word: Cause.
The second paragraph he highlighted was this one.
Those who bear the marks of despair on their bodies need a community that bears the world’s only sure hope in its body. They need communities that rehearse this hope again and again and delight in their shared foretaste of God’s promised world to come. They need to see that this great promise, secured by Christ’s resurrection, compels us to work amidst the wreckage in hope. In so doing, the church provides her depressed members with a plausible hope and a tangible reminder of the message they most need to hear: This sin-riddled reality does not have the last word. Christ as embodied in his church is the last word.
In the margin alongside that paragraph, he had written this word: Remedy.
Arthur and I concluded our phone conversation with the triple promise that we would pray fervently for the Warren family in their grief, that we would pray for each other even more consistently, and that we would get together soon for coffee and conversation.
I sat there for several minutes after the call ended. I think I was beginning to understand why the news of Matthew Warren’s untimely death affected Arthur so deeply. As a parent, he could barely imagine the devastating grief he would experience in a similar situation. And as one who wrestles daily with the plague of uncertainty regarding his personal circumstances—uncertainty which sometimes pushes him to the very brink of hopelessness and batters him with a sense of uselessness—he could very well imagine falling prey to momentary but overwhelming despair.
Beyond all that, he earnestly believes that the church, as part of its privilege and responsibility to function as “the agent of the Kingdom of God,” is supposed to serve as a hospital for persons in all kinds of pain—physical, spiritual, and emotional. At this moment in his pilgrimage, he feels the pain but misses the palliative effects of a genuine Kingdom community.
I worry about Arthur. Not so much about whether or not he will succumb to the ultimate act of desperation and despair. I worry that he will never fully emerge from the valley where he spends so much time these days. I worry that he will never again perceive himself to be needed. That he will conclude that his days of usefulness for the Kingdom have passed.
It’s clear that his own pilgrimage has made him far more sensitive to the pain of others who are facing similar circumstances. Now if he could only find a faith community that would not only wrap its healing arms around him but would also allow him to draw on his own experience as a way to help ease someone else’s pain.