“A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
T. S. Eliot ~ Journey of the Magi
Like many I’m sure, I’m still trying to wrap my thoughts and feelings around the suicide of 36-y.o Isaac Hunter, the founder and former pastor of the Orlando area megachurch, Summit. I did not know Isaac but I heard him preach twice and he was obviously gifted, and I’ve listened to about 95% of the sermons given by Joel, his father, over the past 20 years. He obviously learned much from his dad. In many of those messages Pastor Joel would tell family stories to illustrate his point. After a while there’s an illusion created in listening to all those stories that you think you know the family—but you don’t. Joel and Becky are fairly private people, and for all of Joel’s talk about Northland being a family—it’s not. It is a 10,000 member megachurch.
I doubt that we will ever know the details of how things unraveled in Isaac’s life his last couple weeks. Perhaps that is for the best. I keep trying to process it, but I’m not having much success. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. I keep thinking if I knew more of the details I could figure it out and box it up—but maybe not. That’s what we “Christians” try to do with the incomprehensible, especially tragedies—wrap them in nice little biblical boxes. I think I understand clinical depression and suicide. After all, I’m a licensed counselor, and I’ve written a book about mood disorders. And, btw, how the Christian community often fails folks with mental/emotional disorders. I have also written a book about spiritual warfare, and that was surely going on in Isaac’s short life.
It doesn’t make sense, but then again maybe it isn’t supposed to make sense. Like the Holocaust, it just is—and there’s no making sense of events like that, but of course folks like myself feel compelled to and what we often come up with is some trite formulation or quasi-scriptural answer. And irony upon irony: I recall Pastor Joel once saying that the name Isaac meant “laughter.” And just the whole Bible story of Isaac and his papa Abraham preparing to sacrifice him is another of those incomprehensible biblical tales that I just had to take on faith for many years until it finally made sense. We can rationalize it but it never quite feels right in our gut—maybe it’s not supposed to.
I did not attend the memorial service last saturday, but I watched much of the slide presentation shown at the service—picture after picture of happy family scenes—Isaac as a child; Isaac playing sports; Isaac with his kids—none of these photos lending a clue as to what was going on with him. A counselor friend said that in the pics posted online that his eyes looked “dead” and she felt there was something going on inside him. I didn’t get that feeling but she may be more perceptive than I. He certainly didn’t look clinically depressed in any of the pics I saw, and an agitated depression accounts for the vast majority of suicides. Some suicides are meant to be manipulations that misfire, and some are done impulsively under influence of alcohol or drugs, but most are the result of prolonged emotional pain.
Trying to make sense out of loss and somehow justify it is one of the five stages of grief. It is usually the second stage after (1) shock and denial. The others are (3) anger, (4) depression and (5) acceptance. Sometimes the second stage is called “bargaining” and it is the most difficult to understand. Most of what I’ve seen posted on Fb would fall in stage one: shock and denial. I’ve read a really good blog http://blog.unlogik.com/reflecting anger by A. B. Sterne, a young clergyman from Vancouver who used to live in Orlando and apparently attended Summit and knew Isaac. What he and another counselor friend said resonated with me. My friend said she was really angry about the effect of the suicide on his kids and extended family. Given the time of the year, having a happy holiday season has been taken from them forever. There is a reliving of an event called an “anniversary reaction.” She called his suicide a narcissistic act.
My blogger friend Jim Wright posted a note about the pressures of pastoring a big institutional church and how the office of pastor has become something it was never meant to be. The First Century church of Acts was not one of megachurches with celebrity pastors, or pastors laden with huge administrative duties along with preaching every sunday. Jim and I are both into the home church/simple church paradigm as being the best vehicle for worship and teaching. Indeed the office of pastor has become a monstrosity seemingly designed by the devil to drive good men to early graves. I recall reading that something like 1500 pastors leave their church or the ministry every week.
I’ve not felt comfortable with (or comforted by) much of what I’ve seen on Fb about Isaac’s death. But I know that people are struggling with their grief and trying to make sense out of the lost life. Almost all I’ve seen on Fb has been an outpouring of positive feelings about Isaac’s short life—and his preaching certainly touched the lives of many. Did his last act take it all back, cancelling it all out like a bad check? I think not, but it sure put a huge question mark on his life and ministry.
For me, Isaac’s suicide is incomprehensible and perhaps always will remain so. How does a gifted young Christian pastor with a family decide to end it all two weeks before Christmas? Granted he had fallen into sin and public disgrace. News about an affair, substance abuse, and allegations by his wife of domestic violence were all over the local media a year ago. But that was a year ago. I’d read that he was working with Summit on restoration. Were his sins any worse than that of David, the man after God’s own heart?
In a few days we will celebrate an event that for me is equally incomprehensible—God willingly deciding to become one of us to save our wretched selves: The Incarnation. For me it has always been a better story than the Crucifixion, or the Resurrection, because it is such a mystery. It is for me truly “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
But sadly, for many who knew him well, Christmastime and Isaac’s death will remain inexorably linked.