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May 20th, 2017

Last week, Ed and Susan Pearce came face to face with a parent’s worst nightmare – not only the loss of their child, but at his own hand.  No one brings a child in the world with even a faint imagination that someday that child will come to believe his own life is not worth living out to its natural end.

Many people, parents or not, would respond to that circumstance, as well as to the years that led up to that moment, with diminished faith, or even with the complete loss of all reason to believe.  Knowing Ed and Susan, it doesn’t surprise me that their faith has only become stronger.  Susan texted me this morning:  “It is well with our souls.”  That’s crazy talk, unless you know Jesus.

I want to suggest for you today that Matthew Pearce’s life, his illness, and even his death all offer reasons to believe.

Matthew’s life.  Let’s start with the easy one.  Matthew’s life gives us a reason to believe.  I’m referring primarily to his early life, the Matthew his brother called sociable and creative, a shimmering light.  Life itself is one of the great reasons to believe.  By “life” I don’t mean the biological complexities of microscopic cells.  That’s fascinating to me, but far beyond my pay grade.  I mean life you don’t have to be a doctor or scientist to appreciate.

It’s a wonderful gift to breathe, to think, to love and be loved.  You and I can marvel at this thing called life because we are created in God’s image.  Plants and animals are alive, but only humans are aware that we are alive, and therefore able to express wonder and gratitude.

Matthew Pearce was created in God’s image.  For the first eighteen or so years of his life, he expressed and modeled life at its best.  That picture on the back of your bulletin is real.  Susan described Matthew as fun, energetic, engaged, and artistic.  He played the jimbe and the marimba.  He took lots of arts class, loved soccer and tennis.  As Andrew said, he was brilliant.  (Matthew’s brother Andrew’s remarks are included below at the end of my meditation.) To be sure, he had a temper and was self-critical, but that was his passion on display.

Ed shared how the whole family was baptized together after Matthew made his profession of faith in Jesus at about age 7.  They were attending Highland Baptist Church at the time, where baptism by immersion was a requirement for full membership.  Ed and Susan had been sprinkled, but now that the whole family expressed publicly their trust in Christ. This was and would remain a family where Christ was honored in first place.

Others besides his family experienced that fully alive Matthew.  One of his high school friends, Chilo Forsyth, is preparing for ministry under the care of St. David’s Apostolic Celtic Church in Black Mountain.  The day after Chilo heard about Matthew’s death last Saturday, he was to preach his first sermon at the church.  He awoke at 1:00 AM last Sunday, unable to sleep, and rewrote his entire message as a reflection on Matthew’s life and death.  One of Chilo’s favorite moments was what he called a “Bro Date” with the guy he just called “Pearce” – to J.D.’s Barbecue, Circus Hall of Cream, and finally the youth group at Matt’s church.

A high school friend and neighbor wrote to Ed and Susan this week:

Matt was my best friend and mentor.  I can point to him for many of my interests that make me, me.  Probably a full year of my life Matt was my only friend.  I owe him so much in gas money.  I’m sorry I can’t walk into your house today.  I love Matt.  He got me through really tough times.  And honestly, I hurt deeply.  Love you all, John Luney.

The wonder of life, the gift of family, the pleasure of friendship, and especially the hope of salvation in this life and the life to come – all of that is, for me at least as well as for Ed, Susan, Andrew and those who knew Matthew early in life, a reason to believe.

Matthew’s illness.  I also see Matthew’s illness as a reason to believe.  Why?  First, because in many ways the old Matthew was still there.  While there was undoubtedly a dramatic downward spiral of mental illness, substance abuse, irresponsibility, and dishonesty that exposed a different force at work, Matt still shone through.

Chuck Myers at Hickory Cove Bible Camp worked with Matt several years as his illness progressed.  Matt could still laugh and lead.  Further, the awareness of what at that time was diagnosed as depression helped Matt be more empathetic to the campers.  One camper struggled with depression, and Matt teared up as he told Chuck, “I can help because I know what he’s going through.”

Chuck also told the story about catching Matt in the act of stealing from the camp multiple times.  The way Chuck decided to handle it is to tell Matt he had decided if the person  handling the camp’s cash couldn’t keep it safe they’d have to be replaced. The next morning Matt came to Chuck’s office in tears and admitted being the thief because not doing so would have cost an innocent person their job.  In Chuck’s words, Matt was always concerned with other people in some way, shape, or form.  Chuck wrote, “Even when he was being destructive to family and those closest to him, he was, at his core, concerned about others.”  I asked both Chuck and Ed their permission to tell that story, and Ed’s comment was, “Sure, because that was the catalyst for getting Matt into a treatment program.”

The note Matt left for his parents last Saturday before he took two months of medication to deliberately end his life began, “Sorry it has come to this.”  I read that as a note of apology.  Even though he couldn’t see a way forward I believe he agonized over what he knew would be their devastation.

Another reason Matt’s illness points to God lies in the response of others to Matt – most importantly his family, but so many others.  Ed and Susan have struggled with how to respond to Matt, at different times offering grace and provision as they paid for his treatment and welcomed him back home for the umpteenth time, and at other times exercising tough love and realizing he had to make his own choices and live with the consequences.  A parent is never quite sure of the right path in such a situation, but the one thing they always knew, and Matt always knew, is that they loved him unconditionally.  Susan said they finally came to the conclusion that “we have a special needs child and will always have to help him.”

It’s for this reason that I chose the Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel 9, one of the Bible’s truly beautiful stories about disability.  King David, who had been hunted like a criminal by his predecessor Saul, grieved when Saul and Jonathan died.  In most monarchical systems, especially ancient ones, the new king would eliminate all family members of the previous dynasty so there could be no rival.  Instead, David asks, “Is there anyone from Saul’s family to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?”  Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son, is brought to David.  He has a severe disability, another strike against him.  David welcomes him to the king’s table for the rest of his life.  It’s a beautiful picture of God’s unconditional love.

The poor, the marginalized, the powerless, and the disabled are one of the main ways the Bible teaches us to give evidence for God in a fallen world.  In the world to come, it will not be necessary, but in this world we have the less fortunate and the differently abled in order to put God’s love on display.  Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.”  It’s the nature of life on earth to experience pain of some sort.  “But take heart,” he insists, “I have overcome the world.”  The rest of the New Testament unfolds the privilege we have while we live in a world of suffering to love those who suffer for Jesus’ sake.

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are disabilities.  Mental disease hijacks the brain.  We who are blessed with more normally functioning brains assume they should be able to make healthy choices like we do (well, some of the time), but that’s like telling a cancer patient to just start feeling better.  To be sure, they also must take personal responsibility, but mental disease around us is simply another opportunity for us to love.  There can be no greater legacy of Matthew Pearce’s all-too-brief life than for us to learn more about bipolar schizoaffective disorder in order to gain more understanding and compassion.  To whatever degree we can love as we have been loved, we offer even greater evidence for God.

You may say, “But it isn’t fair!  Why should Matt and his family have to suffer in this way when others don’t, when you and I don’t?”  The question itself is evidence for God.  In his book, Simply Christian, N. T. Wright offers what he calls “echoes of a voice” – hints in the world around us that there is a God.  One of those is the cry for justice.  “This longing for things to be put right remains one of the great human goals and dreams” (Simply Christian, 15).  If there is no God, why even ask the question?  We’re just here as a random collection of molecules, competing for the survival of the fittest.  Questions themselves reveal a standard of fairness that lies outside ourselves, and provide further evidence for God.

Matthew’s death.  Finally, I believe Matthew’s death also points us to God and not away from him.  More specifically, Matthew’s death points to Jesus as the Savior of the world.

Death is God’s idea and it is his gift.  To be sure, the Bible speaks of death as an enemy, and it is an enemy.  Death separates, always leaving grief and pain in its wake.  That too is evidence of God because it is evidence of love.  We would not mourn if we did not love, and we could not love if we were not made in God’s image.

God introduced death into this world.  To be sure, he did so as a consequence of sin, but it was a gift of grace that humans would not live eternally in our sinful state.  Genesis says that Adam and Eve were barred from the tree of life lest they eat its fruit and sin forever.

The Heidelberg Catechism, a Q&A book for the Reformed faith, wrestles with the meaning of death – Christ’s death and ours.  The reason Christ had to die was because only the death of God’s Son could pay for our sins.  If that’s true, Question 42 asks, “Why do we also have to die?”  I love the answer:  “Our death does not pay the debt for our sins.  Rather, it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life.”

“Our death…puts an end to our sinning.”  I was having a conversation with someone after hearing that Mayor Rudy Wright had ended his own life, and then Matthew Pearce shortly thereafter.  The person said to me, “I don’t believe suicide is a sin.”  It wasn’t the moment for a debate, but I completely disagree.  Of course suicide is a sin.  It breaks the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder.”  Suicide leaves such pain in its wake.  Many people who take their own lives come to believe they are doing their family or the world a favor – that life will be easier without them.  Instead, it’s the ultimate act of selfishness, and it’s wrong.

But God forbid we should ever think that our lives are defined, much less our eternal destiny, by the last thing we did, an act of sin or of heroic self-sacrifice.  What if your last act was a covetous thought or an angry word, and then you were in an auto accident?  Jesus’ payment for our sins is not like a tightly contested basketball game, where only the buzzer beater matters.  He paid for all our sins, even the final one.

I cannot judge someone who was in such pain at the end of his life.  Instead, I hope these suicides in our community make us more aware of those around us who need our attention and care.  You’ll be hearing more in the months to come about a workshop we are hosting at Corinth this fall on suicide awareness and prevention.

But even as sin, suicide, like every other death, puts an end to our sinning.  That is a mercy from God.  Matthew’s final seven years were a downward spiral of suffering and sinning. But he doesn’t have to suffer any more and he can’t sin anymore.  It’s cliché-ish, I know, but he can truly and finally “rest in peace.”  While I grieve for and with his family and friends, I am glad that where he is now, he is at peace.

My wife Linda and I recently listened to the entirety of C. S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Screwtape Letters, as an audio book, all in one afternoon.  The book closes with the awareness of Screwtape, the senior devil, that the human who has now died now can see what’s real.  All along the devil has tried to delude and deceive him, but now he can finally see in Jesus’ presence that those voices were only pretending to give out truth.  Reality now stands in front of him in the person of the perfect Man, Jesus.  That’s how I see Matthew today – no longer haunted by paranoia, no longer defeated by depression – but whole in mind and spirit in the presence of Jesus.  He’s free at last.

I say that not because he was a kind person or because of some watered down vision of God that he saves everyone in the end.  It’s not even because I think God specifically overlooks the worst sins of those who suffer.  No, it is because of Matthew’s embrace of Jesus that I can declare that hope. Everything I know about Matthew, everything that his parents and friends have told me, validates that he genuinely trusted Christ and wanted to live his life for the Lord.  He battled demons most of us will never have to face, and he didn’t always win those battles.  The disease that rewired his brain robbed him of his capacity to mature spiritually as he wanted to.  And for that, he needed and needs our compassion.

On one occasion Matthew asked his Dad, “Why do I have this disease?”  Ed could only answer, “I don’t know, but I do know God is good.”  How would Ed know that?  Ed and Susan wanted the end of Romans 8 for this service, not only to be read but to be printed on the back of the bulletin.  Before that grand climax, however, the Apostle Paul responds to the question all of us are prone to ask:  “Where is God in a world of suffering?”  Paul responds like Ed Pearce:  “I don’t know, but I do know God is good.”

How do you know, Paul?  “He who did not spare his own son….” That’s Paul’s answer.  God didn’t just look down and say, “I sure feel bad for you suffering humans.”  He gave his own Son to suffer with us and for us.  At the end of the day that is the Christian faith’s only answer to every question about suffering.  We don’t try to answer why.  We just know that a God who would himself suffer death on a cross so that we could be redeemed must be a good God.  We will grieve, but we will trust.

That is why even today, on this day every parent dreads, I will join them and I hope you will too, in declaring in defiance of everything evil, our faith –

I am convinced that neither death (no matter how it happens) 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.

Amen.

Andrew Pearce’s remarks

Matthew, like all humans, was full of complexities. When he was sane and functioning, his light radiated out of him like a lighthouse, infecting all with a vibrant joy for life. However, his darkness was deep and black as the ocean depths, and when his mental illness was in full gear he had little to no function. I want my message to y’all today to be a reflection of the Matthew I knew growing up, and when Matthew was at his best. However, I do not want to sugar coat, or skate over what Matthew’s darkness was comprised of; it is important to me and my family that we recognize what led Matt to tragically take his own life.

Growing up, Matthew was the epitome of life itself. As an older brother, I sometimes took it for granted or did not recognize just how much a younger brother looks up to you. A favorite story happened when I was 6 and Matt was about 3 or 4.  We used our hot tub in Wilkesboro as a pool.  The large seat was like a slide for kids.  I slid down and then convinced Matthew to slide after me.  He busted his chin open, and I remember Mom screaming at the top of her lungs, “We have to go to the hospital!”

Matthew, like most younger brothers, did look up to me; but I also looked up to him and today try to emulate his essence in everyday life. Most who only knew me as an adult may not believe this, but I was an incredibly shy child. Matthew was not; he was as gregarious as they come. He was the person that could go into a room where he knew no one and have 5 best friends at the end of an hour that he wanted to invite to his birthday party. I, on the other hand, was terrified of new people. Every time we were somewhere strange and I needed something, I always made Matt go ask for it or every time the phone rang I made Matt answer it, because new people were exciting for him. I was always so jealous of this ability. He was so outgoing in everything he did, and everyone wanted to be his friend. Matthew was so sociable and likable I would even get mad when he was hanging out with me and my friends because I was afraid they would like him better. He is the reason I have social skills today, he is the reason I am able to act confident and socialize in new situations. And as an attorney, it comes in handy. In this way I am able to emulate Matt in everyday life.

While I focused on athletics and academics, Matt was the creative brother. He could play piano and was involved in heavily in the P3 percussion. As well, he loved all forms of art, from drawing to photography and pottery. While I was focused on grades, Matthew was the smart one, he knew it, and that was good enough for him. His processing speed on tests and papers was out of this world. He was the first one done on everything in every class. I remember I took the SAT 4 times, and studied for it to be able to achieve the score that I wanted.  The first time Matt took the SAT, without studying, he did about 200 points better than I ever could and I was so mad. Everything came easy to Matt, which allowed his light to shine even brighter.

As a friend and brother, he was a confidant and mentor, encouraging everyone to try new things. He was active in the Church and loved being on the tennis team at school. He was always looking to go on adventures, whether it was going to England and Ireland or convincing everyone to go sledding down the most dangerous hill in the neighborhood at top speed. Together, we both loved the same music and shared our favorite bands and albums (and he stole all my albums without asking!); and our whole lives, we loved to sail at Camp Don Lee. At all times his light shone and shimmered like the Aurora Borealis.

After Matt graduated high school, the lightness began to flicker and was replaced by a darkness that corrupted his brain. He began to isolate, surrounding himself with an air of sadness. He developed a fear of crowds and of people and his behavior and thoughts became erratic and disjointed. And thus began my family’s journey into the chaos which is severe mental illness. For years Matt went to counselors, therapists, psych wards, and mental institutions and rehabs in the hope of discovering what was going on and how to make it better. It took 4 years for Matthew to receive the correct diagnosis: Schizo-affective disorder, a dangerous combination of Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia.

Matthew began to improve, but the Matthew I knew and grew up with was a ghost of his former self.  The medications were effective, but there is no cure to mental illness. For every two steps forward, there is always one step back. While Matt could function better, the light that was in him shone only periodically; and when it was on you had to cherish it with all your heart.

In the end, Matthew’s darkness and disease resulted in him taking his own life. His death fills me with such sadness and grief, but also anger as only suicide can. For me, it is important to acknowledge Matt’s disease and understand the pain it brought. It is important for me that we shed light on the stigma of suicide, and bring the pain and heartache it causes into the open.

Today it is more important that we understand mental illness does not define a person. Matthew did not only have demons; he was filled with goodness, kindness, compassion, generosity, enthusiasm and love. He shone bright as the sun. This is the Matthew that I will also treasure and remember, and this is the Matthew who will always be in my heart. I choose to remember my little brother chasing me around the house, radiating pure joy, and screaming at the top of his lungs “bubby, bubby, bubby.”

In these times of sadness, we can always lean on our faith and favorite Bible verses as a source of comfort. Here is one of mine.

But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.”
(Isaiah 43:1-2)

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