For Ryan

Funeral Homily on July 3, 2022 by Todd J. Leonard

I don’t know what day it is. It’s all a blur. All I know is that there was time before Thursday and time after Thursday. The time when Ryan was alive and the time of trying to figure out why he’s not alive and how we’re going to live on without him.

None of us can believe this happened. We’ve all been saying, “I was just texting with him…,” “I just talked on the phone with him the other day…,” “We were together last week…,” “The last time I saw him he was so happy…,” “We were planning to….” This is so surreal. The world’s not right.

We really don’t know in great detail why Ryan arrived at the place that he felt he needed to do this. We’ve been trying to figure it out the best we can, but we’ll never really know exactly what was going on his mind and heart in the hours leading up to this. What we can deduce is that he was carrying so much despair inside from being so overwhelmed by multiple stressors and he clearly didn’t want anyone to know about it.
• Our family knew that his back pain had returned. He had undergone multiple and expensive surgeries to heal him from severe, chronic pain in his spine and the procedures had been largely successful. But what must have been incredibly frustrating for him, was that it returned with a vengeance in just the past few weeks.
• We know he was having stress with his day trading. By definition, this work is stressful, but there was some evidence that the stress was worse than usual, that he may have not been on a good run as of late.
• And Ryan battled lifelong mental illness. His depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder were constant fights for him, whether he was taking his medication or not. His mind made his day-to-day life much more difficult than it is for those who don’t have these conditions.
Why we’re here today is because Ryan was exhausted by these conditions and more that he never shared with us. He had given up. He was tired of fighting. Tired of the struggle. And he came to a point where his mind saw no way out and he felt he was all alone. While he had a way out and he was surrounded by love, the deep dark pit he was in told him otherwise.

The scripture passage that was open on his bed on Thursday speaks to how Ryan was feeling. Though he hadn’t committed the deplorable acts that King David, who wrote this Psalm, did, it appears he felt guilty and under condemnation for things he had done and that he was begging God to forgive him and give him salvation:

Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me—now let me rejoice. Don’t keep looking at my sins. Remove the stain of my guilt…. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.
–Psalm 51.1-2, 8-12, NLT

For so long, Ryan had been trying to get things right—right in his head, right in his body, right in his career, right in his relationships—and yet he kept struggling. And he sought healing from the only place left that he thought that he could find it—by taking his life.

I need to say some things today, especially to the family. And I know that I’m low in the pecking order in the Blount clan. But right now, in this space, we’re on my turf and I’m in charge. So you have to listen to me.

  1. Ryan didn’t “commit suicide.” He died of suicide because his mind betrayed him when he needed it the most and told him there was no way out. Ryan died of an illness. Not character weakness. Not lack of faith. Not selfishness. He died of a broken heart and mind.
  2. This final act does not invalidate everything else Ryan did and it doesn’t reduce who he was. We are all mixtures of darkness and light and Ryan was no different. His talent, intellect, generosity, sense of humor and work ethic are all still true pieces of who he was. His light still shines even though he died in a moment of darkness. Don’t let this final act detract in any way from all the light that shined forth from him.
  3. No one close to Ryan is at fault for his death. We’ve already been saying this to each other over the past 72 hours and we’ll need to keep saying it to each other, because it is natural to ask this question of yourself as part of the grieving process: “Was there something more I could have done?” “Did I say or do something recently that triggered this?” “Was it something wrong I did earlier in life that set him up for this?”
  • NO. This is not your fault. It had much more to do with what we’ve already talked about. I don’t know of a family that has done more to show love than what you each have done for Ryan. You love your son and brother desperately and generously. He had your love. His death is not your fault.
  1. If you recognize that you share some of the struggles that Ryan did, please don’t be ashamed to admit that you might have some form of mental illness. Getting therapy and treatment may be the difference that keeps you from coming to the place that Ryan did. There should be no shame or stigma with depression, anxiety, bi-polar or obsessive-compulsive disorder. My own story includes the fact that I have been able to avoid returning to dark pits of depression thanks to the therapists I’ve seen and the medication I’m taking.
  2. There have been horrible myths perpetuated in the Christian community about those who die from suicide, including that those who die this way will be eternally lost. Let me reply with a specific theological word to those who teach and preach this: BULLSHIT. Those who believe this lie have not paid attention to the experience of our brother Jesus in his final days on earth.
  • As he and his disciples walked through the Garden of Gethsemane, in the gospel of Mark it says that Jesus, “became deeply troubled and distressed. He told them, ‘My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me’” (Mark 14.33-34, NLT). In other words, Jesus said, “I am so overwhelmed that I want to die!” And, unlike Ryan, who had family and friends all around him who would love and support him if he called out for help, Jesus had all his friends desert him and betray him.
  • In fact, by the time he was hanging on a cross the next day, Jesus felt he had lost connection with his Heavenly Father as well. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34, NLT). Jesus saw all his friends leave him and his mind had come to the place where he believed his Father had betrayed him as well. Jesus knew exactly what Ryan was going through on Thursday. He had been through it himself.
  1. Therefore, if Jesus has suffered what Ryan has and rose up from the dead and returned to heaven with the Father, than Ryan too will rise up from the dead and ascend to be with Jesus and the Father in heaven.
  • If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
  • “For your sake we face death all day long;
  • we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
  • No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. –Romans 8.31-39, NIV
  • Ryan is not under condemnation and nothing can separate him from the love of God. Therefore, we can rest knowing that Ryan is at peace in the healing arms of God and that, because of God’s love for us, we too will be with God one day and be reunited with Ryan for all eternity. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Amen.

The Walk: Walk Before Me

May 8, 2021 Easter B6 Glendale City Church Sermon 1 of 4

Walk, Journey, Pilgrimage, Two-Steps-Forward, One-Step-Back…

ABRAHAM IN GENESIS 17.1-8   When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.  Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

DAVID IN PSALM 56.12-13      I am under vows to you, my God; I will present my thank offerings to you.  For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.

SOLOMON IN 2 CHRONICLES 7.14-18      If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that my Name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.  As for you, if you walk before me faithfully as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father….

JOHN THE BAPTIST IN LUKE 1.17        And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Abram

  • God almighty – Abram falls down – God commands faithfulness and blamelessness
  • Everything religion has done to us can be encapsulated in this description of God’s interaction with Abram
  • And this passage comes after Abram hadn’t been faithful or blameless, so you get the understanding of the thundering God speaking to the naughty boy

Is There Another Way to See “Walk Before Me?”  —  MY DAD 

  • Piano, Concert Band, Bell Choir, Soccer, Volleyball, Basketball
    • Never missed a recital, concert, match or game—he saw everything I did
    • Always cheering me on, sometimes coaching me, reminding me to practice, never shamed or belittled
    • I grew up assured that Dad was very proud of me and knew I was going to turn into a fine adult, even when I had my serious doubts

1 JOHN 3.1-3           Oh! What great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

El-Shaddai – The Many-Breasted One—Giver of Life, Giver of Love, Giver of Legacy.  We walk before her. 

Awareness of the Loving, Cheering-us-on, God of Promise and Eternal Life

Doubt: The Faithful and Doubting Community

March 27, 2021    Lent B: Sabbath of the Palms      Glendale City Church     Sermon 6 of 8

FOUR STAGES & BOOK

  • Stage 1: Simplicity.     Right vs. Wrong.  Good vs. Evil.  Safe vs. Dangerous.
  • Stage 2: Complexity.  How do I succeed?  How do I win?  
  • Stage 3: Perplexity.     What is true?  Who can I trust?  What is worth standing for?
  • Stage 4: Harmony.       Second simplicity—this time trusting in Mystery.  Make peace living with doubt.
  • Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It, Brian D. McLaren, 2021

Hebrews 12.18-19, 22-24, 28-29              You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm;to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them….  But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel….  Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

  • Touching Mystery
  • Faith cycles through times of certainty and times of doubt.  
  • Like Palm Sunday—it was the day where Jesus was publicly recognized as Savior and it was also the day that sealed his doom.  

Galatians 5.1, 4-6   It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope…. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

What Spirituality Boils Down To

  • The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love.  
  • God Loves Us.  We Love Others.  God Is Loved through Our Love for Others.    

M. Scott Peck: Characteristics of Harmonious Community

  • Inclusive—keeps working at removing requirements for people to be in relationship with each other
  • Committed—consciously choosing to stay in community no matter what.  Stick-to-it-iveness.
  • Consensus—coming to agreement while continuing to respect differences
  • Realistic—recognizing the light and dark that is present within the group and each individual
  • Contemplative—it doesn’t assume it’s reached perfection; it continues to be reflective and humble
  • Safe—Vulnerability is celebrated and respected.  We don’t fix people. We let the safe space heal people. 

Life-Long Learning: How a Church Can Meet People at Each Stage

At Vallejo Drive, I tried something with the youth and young adult ministry.  I tried doing a Friday night gathering with options for stages 2-4.  I had labeled each of the four stages with a word that ended in “x:”

  • Stage 1: Basix – God loves us.  Let us love others. Obey God and parents…
  • Stage 2: Practix – Family, Marriage, Sex, Career, Bible Study, 12-Step Groups…
  • Stage 3: Heretix – Comparative Religion, Science & Scripture Compatibility, Grief Support Groups…
  • Stage 4: Mystix – Contemplation, Spiritual Disciplines, Justice Ministries…

Mission of Glendale City Church: Revealing Christ, Affirming All

Our mission is to reveal the love of Christ in all its tenderness and grandeur to the community in which we live. We desire to embrace the wonder of humanity in its complexity, diversity, and beauty—and to do so without precondition. In short, we yearn to reveal the splendor of Christ and to affirm the worth of all people.

Doubt: Harmonious Convergence

March 13, 2021        Lent B4                      

Glendale City Church       Sermon 5 of 8

FOUR STAGES & BOOK

  • Stage 1: Simplicity.     Right vs. Wrong.  Good vs. Evil.  Safe vs. Dangerous.
  • Stage 2: Complexity.  How do I succeed?  How do I win?  
  • Stage 3: Perplexity.     What is true?  Who can I trust?  What is worth standing for?
  • Stage 4: Harmony.       Today
  • Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It, Brian D. McLaren, 2021

TODD’S STORY

CHARACTERISTICS OF STAGE 4 SPIRITUALITY: HARMONY

  • Stage 3’s triumphant march to certainty finally stops and you realize:
    • Ultimate truth cannot be attained—you can’t find all the answers
    • Relationships are risky—there will be pain, sorrow, loss and heartbreak
    • There are no superheroes—you can’t fight every battle and stop injustice by yourself
    • Brian McLaren—”But in the hot crucible of doubt we experienced in late Perplexity, we began to become cynical about our own cynicism, skeptical of our own skepticism, critical of our own critical thinking, doubting of our own doubtfulness. Our naive certainty, excessive confidence, and obsessive deconstruction began to burn away in a self-consuming blast furnace. We finally descended to a point so low that instead of looking down on everything, we had to look up at it from a humbled position of under-standing, you might say, and in so doing, we became capable of encountering something without needing to control it. Rather, we were able simply to see it, perhaps even to see it with love.” –Faith After Doubt, pp. 98-99
  • Embrace non-dualistic thinking and a universe where everything belongs.  Worldview shifts from either/or to both/and.  Binaries are swallowed by larger unities. Diversity is welcomed without division & difference is heard without dissonance.
    • M. Scott Peck: “Mystics of every shade of religious belief have spoken of unity, of an underlying connectedness between things: between men and women, between us and the other creatures and even inanimate matter as well, a fitting together according to an ordinarily invisible fabric underlying the cosmos.”  –The Different Drum, p. 192
  • Delight in the unknown and ongoing quest for new discovery of the unknown.  There is much less certainty and much more mystery.  Rediscover wonder and awe.  A second simplicity or second naivete. 
    • Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
  • Find community with the broad diversity of humanity.  A stage four mystic will have relationships with people that defy categorization.  
    • M. Scott Peck: “Having become practiced at emptying themselves of preconceived notions and prejudices and able to perceive the invisible underlying fabric that connects everything, they do not think in terms of factions or blocs or even national boundaries; they know this to be one world…and realize that what divides us into warring camps is precisely the lack of this awareness.”  –The Different Drum, p. 193 
  • What Matters: Faith, Hope and Love…and Mostly Love
    • “We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.” –Alan Watts, as quoted in Faith After Doubt, p. 117. 
    • “Faith before doubt: it’s about correct beliefs. Faith after doubt: it’s about revolutionary love. By revolutionary love, I mean love beyond: love that goes beyond myself to my neighbor, beyond my neighbor to the stranger, alien, other, outcast, and outsider; beyond the outsider to the critic, antagonist, opponent, and enemy; and even beyond the human to my non-human fellow creatures. In short, revolutionary love means loving as God would love: infinitely, graciously, extravagantly.” –Faith  After Doubt, pp. 116-117

Benediction: Give Me Doubt

The Brilliance

Give me doubt so I can see my neighbor as myself
Give me doubt so I can lay all my weapons on the ground
When the armor of God is too heavy for peace

Give me doubt, give me doubt

What be my courage now?
My shield from evil?
Love, be my courage now
I shall not fear

Give me doubt so I can see my neighbor as myself
Give me doubt so I can lay all my weapons on the ground
When the armor of God is too heavy for peace
Give me doubt, give me doubt
Give me doubt

Doubt: The Soapbox

March 6, 2021      Lent B3     Glendale City Church       Sermon 4 of 8

FOUR STAGES & BOOK

  • Stage 1: Simplicity.  Right vs. Wrong.  Good vs. Evil.  Safe vs. Dangerous.
  • Stage 2: Complexity.  How do I succeed?  How do I win? 
  • Stage 3: Perplexity.  Last Week and Today
  • Stage 4: Harmony.  March 13 and following
  • Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It, Brian D. McLaren, 2021

STAGE 3 REVIEW: Moving into a Full Existential Crisis

  • Lose faith in the Authoritarian Pastors of Stage 1 Faith and the LifeCoach Pastors of Stage 2.  
    • Lose faith in simplistic answers to mysterious and perplexing issues in the world.
    • Lose faith in any core truth or one true story.  Everything is relative.
    • Lose respect for leaders and institutions whose actions don’t follow their words.
    • And the wrecking ball begins to do its work.  Deconstruction has begun.  And nothing that you’ve believe in is safe from its catastrophic work.  Your church institution.  The people in your church.  The bible.  God.  
    • You’re all alone.  Any group of people with any leader and purpose is suspect.  You can’t trust it.  If you’re involved at all, you’re on the fringe watching for trouble.
    • You’re either angry, depressed, distressed or all of the above.  You hate that you were tricked into believing in anything or anyone.  You know you can’t trust anyone and yet you crave community and belonging even as you can’t truly belong to anyone or anything.  

LUKE 5.37, 38          No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking

MY STORY

  • Speaking and Acting on My Convictions
    • Adventist Teachings—lost members and friends
    • Accepted Part-Time Pastoral Position in a Predominately Black Church
    • LGBTQ Ally: lost most employment opportunities and all speaking invitations
    • Began journey towards changing churches but desperately grabbed a job in Southern California

THE IRONY OF STAGE 3

  • In one way, it is a deconstruction of everything you built up in Stages 1 & 2
    • Anti-authority, anti-groupthink, anti-easy answers, anti-dualism, anti-American Dream
  • In another way, it is the natural outflow of Stages 1 & 2
    • 1: Truth, righteousness, love, integrity—no matter what.  If it’s not true, it’s gotta go.  
    • 2: Dive deeper, follow the evidence and integrate what’s true—continue with devotion to curiosity, flexibility to change direction, wisdom to play the game ethically, change the game or leave the game behind altogether. 

THREE IMPORTANT STEPS FORWARD IN STAGE 3

  1. Speak & Act Truthfully: Objective truth & your truth. What’s right is right; what’s wrong is wrong 

JOSHUA 24.15.     Choose this day whom you will serve…. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

2. Renegotiate Relationships: With work, church and family

LUKE 14.26, 27       Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

3. Stand and Fight for Justice: Not for yourself, but for others

JOHN 15.12, 13       This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

LUKE 9.23-27          Then [Jesus] said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

You don’t understand what Jesus meant when he said, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” until you’ve gone through existential doubt. Doubt takes almost everything away. It strips you down to almost nothing. And you feel like you’ve lost your life. But it is right there where the first signs of new life–glorious life–appear.