Preacher returns to pulpit after son’s suicide

Ergun Caner says he has no answers about why his 15-year-old son killed himself, but he sought solace by returning to the pulpit.

By Bob Allen

Less than two weeks after the suicide of his 15-year-old son, a Baptist college president and popular circuit preacher returned to the pulpit Aug. 10.

“This is muscle memory for me, and being in God’s house among God’s people is exactly where my solace comes from,” Brewton-Parker College President Ergun Caner told the Sunday morning crowd at Northside Baptist Church in Tifton, Ga.

“I’ve been sitting at home since he died, since he committed suicide,” Caner said of the days since July 29, when Braxton Caner ended his life in an upstairs bedroom of his home in Texas where he lived with his mother and younger brother since helping his dad move to Mount Vernon, Ga., to begin a new job after being hired last December.

Ergun Caner“I really wasn’t doing anything,” Caner said. “I mean you mourn, and you have to.”

“I have fewer answers now than we did when I got the call, but God is in the business of taking beauty from ashes,” Caner told the congregation Sunday night.

He said listening to people offering consolation at Braxton’s funeral, he realized that virtually everybody has gone through something similar.

“If it’s not a suicide, it’s a death,” Caner said. “If it’s not a spontaneous death, it’s a sudden death. If it’s not a sudden death, it’s long expected, but it’s a death.”

“Here’s the statistic: One out of one people die,” Caner said. “Everybody dies. It’s my son. It’s my oldest son. The hardest thing I could ever say in my life, but my boy knew Jesus. My son had been saved 10 years.”

braxton canerCaner said at Braxton’s funeral, one well-meaning visitor said, “Well, it’s the will of God.”

“No it’s not,” Caner said. “Don’t blame God for the stupidity of men. Don’t blame God for the evil and sin that exist.”

“I don’t know why he killed himself,” Caner said. “He didn’t leave a note, didn’t explain it, which makes it even harder when people would come up, and it makes it harder for me because I don’t know how to process it. It’s only been a few days, but I wish he would have left a note. I wish he would have done something to tell me that he was hurting. When I enter into periods like that, my natural inclination is to ask why.”

Caner said doubt is the biggest issue he sees in working with college students. He said the “secular world asks a fair question” when it seeks an explanation of the harsh reality of things like sin, death, pestilence, disease, hunger and starvation.

From secular worldview, Caner said, it boils down to two options.

“Either, one, God can’t do anything about it, even though he wants to, but doesn’t that make him just a little less than omnipotent?” Caner said. “Or, two, he can get rid of sickness, pestilence and disease. He can get rid of suffering, suicide, but he doesn’t want to, which makes him a little less than loving.”

“Is that the only two options we have?” he asked.

Preaching from the Old Testament Book of Habakkuk, expressing a prophet’s lament about God’s apparent absence during times of grief, Caner advised the congregation: “Make it a point to take your questions to God rather than running from God. God is not surprised about your doubt. God is not hurt by your questions.”

Caner said Habakkuk answers the question, “Where is God in my darkest hour?” with “The just shall live by faith,” words repeated in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul.

“I’m not there yet,” Caner said. “I wish I was.”

Caner said his son “had a great girlfriend.” He was a lineman for his high school football team and had just recovered from a torn ACL and been cleared to play. His coaches told him he made the team and would be a starter.

“Because he got all A’s, Jill and I gave him a pickup truck for his birthday,” Caner said. The day before he died, he had beaten his previous bench-press record in weight training.

“For some reason, he went up to his room and took a shotgun behind his ear,” Caner said. “I don’t know why, but I do know there’s people here who have gone through the same thing, because you told me this morning.”

“Here’s the only thing I’ve learned about suicide in the few days that I’ve been dealing it with it,” he said. “You don’t get over it. You get through it.”

“I’m not even trying to get over it, and I don’t do the medicines,” Caner said. “No offense to you that do. Awesome, if they help you. God bless you. If I thought they’d help me I’d take 20.”

Caner said he’s “trying to get God to get me through it,” because he’s been dealing with the issue since he was a young preacher.  

“In colleges, even Christian ones, we have at least one suicide a year on average, and 4,000 kids kill themselves every year,” Caner said. “I can deal with that. I just want my son back. I want Braxton. And I guess I need to be silent and to trust that I’m going to get to the moment when I can get on my knees and say ‘Thank God that you’re God.’”

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