Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Wrestling Minds, Wringing Hands

The Doctor is “IN”: Hope for Hurting Minds
A Shell Ridge Sermon by Greg Ledbetter
(preached* 10/08/06)
This sermon was preached on the occasion of
our observance of “Mental Health Awareness Sunday”

Our preacher, Veronica, said recently that this is life’s nature: that lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet. She said that the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward and that we who are more or less OK for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice and graham crackers.”
– Anne Lamott

Biblical Text
Job 1:1, 2:1-10

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason." Then Satan answered the LORD, "Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face." The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life." So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. Then his wife said to him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die." But he said to her, "You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.


PEANUTS: Lucy is sitting in her little booth with the DOCTOR IS IN sign prominently displayed. Charlie Brown is sitting in front on a little stool, and Lucy says, "you know what you’re problem is, Charlie Brown? The problem with you is that you’re you." He’s crushed, so Charlie Brown asks, "Well, what in the world can I do about that?" Lucy says in the final frame, "Sorry, I don’t give advice. I just point out the problem."

The problem with you is that you’re you. And the problem with me is that I’m me. So … what do you do with the unique burden of being “you”? And what do I do with the unique burden of being “me”?

I had been a pastor for about five years … a husband for about seven … a father for about 3 … and I kind of felt like my new favorite comedian, Brian Regan, who tells of himself, “I’m just trying to get through life without screwing up too badly, and so far it’s not going too well.”
So, when the burden began to feel larger than I could manage on my own, I decided to seek out someone who could help me bear it … and perhaps understand it. A friend told me about the Good Samaritan counseling center in Glens Falls, New York … and so I started commuting each week through the lovely rural stretches between our village and the upstate mill town of Glens Falls.

Joe Roberts was my counselor … a former American Baptist minister from New Jersey who turned to the “healing arts” … Joe was a great listener … and I was a pretty good talker. I talked and Joe mostly listened for about 2 ½ years. Then I was “fixed” and I moved to California …  … rrrrright!

Joe was not a pietist … he was not given to casually tossing out “pat religious solutions” to emotional challenges … but I do remember him saying, in whatever part of your life your are experiencing your challenges … invite Jesus into that area, even if it’s an inner place, an inner predicament where you wouldn’t want to be caught dead, invite Jesus in … don’t be embarrassed.

I wish I had known of Anne Lamott’s writing when Joe said that to me because I would have loved to have quoted her, saying right back to him, “You know, Joe, If Jesus knew what I was thinking now, he'd drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Dear friends, invite Jesus in … don’t be embarrassed … don’t hide your inner self and you inner pain from God … bring it all … the good … the bad … the ugly … and maybe especially the ugly … bring it all. Joe helped me.

It’s too bad that Job didn’t have a Joe Roberts he could confide in. Same with King Saul and his “evil spirit” and the prophet Elijah out miserable and alone in the desert. All of these were afflicted in one way or another. Job’s life took this miserable, hideous turn that only seemed explainable by conjuring this bizarre conversation between …. spffff … God and Satan … God tells Satan about Job, [etc.] … Satan says, “Lemme at ‘im … I’ll turn your boy to mush in no time … then see how he curses you to your face.” And bizarrely, God, in effect says: “Sure … go ahead, he’s tough, do what you want—just don’t kill him. May this is where the saying: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And you thought that originated in child-rearing … or marriage or … insert your own challenge here … “Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.”

Many scholars think that the part of Job in which this odd exchange between God and Satan occurs is tacked on to the original story. They also think that about the “lived happily ever after” ending, as well.

But the original part of Job is the long story of his suffering and the deep crisis that it puts him in. He is in agony as he loses his belongings and his family and his health. Job’s agony is complete … it is physical, emotional, spiritual and existential. Perhaps Job needed even more than my friend Joe Roberts could have offered. Suffice it to say that Job suffered … and the book of Job is about suffering.

And I want to suggest that the beginning of the book of Job … the odd, almost hallucinogenic introduction is one way of trying to express just how baffling and bewildering undeserved suffering is when it comes our way. And I would further suggest that when it is the suffering of one who is emotionally ill, it may be the most baffling and bewildering of all.

Mental illness often hits without warning, changing the interior of the mind and changing the exterior of the person so afflicted. Whether or not it has hereditary roots for any given individual, it can be for him or her a profound curse … and it can feel as though divine beings are playing some kind of cruel joke with the afflicted one as its butt.

Mental illness takes a terrible toll. I read recently—and these are broad figures, but I read recently that in America alone, during any one year, up to 50 million Americans suffer from a clearly diagnosable mental disorder. Depression affects nearly one in every ten Americans.
We can put a face on this by saying that in a congregation the size of ours, given the averages, we expect that somewhere around 14 of us suffer from depression. I know that a number of you have been courageous in sharing your own experiences, your own challenges and struggles. You have helped others of us as we have tried to understand our own inner geography with its potholes and sinkholes and even dark abysses.

Rick Mitchell wrote courageously in our September Newsletter of his own struggles that ranged from medical challenges to emotional challenges. One of Rick’s named challenges was anger … which was one of the issues that sent me to Joe Roberts. Rick said:

Looking back in my family, there was not always the acceptance of getting help, especially where mental health issues were concerned. While my father wasn't physically abusive (by the standards of his day), family life was often tense, and psychological/verbal abuse occurred more often than it should have. We are so thankful that this cyclic family pattern has been reduced and hopefully eliminated through help gained from medical and counseling assistance we have received.
Let’s put another kind of face on mental illness … each year, some 5000 young people, aged 15 to 24, commit suicide in America, with thousands more adults taking their lives. Suicide usually ranks first or second among causes of death of teens and young adults.

If it wasn’t obvious before, let us say it now that mental health can be a matter of life and death … and it should be a matter of deep concern for everyone … including those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus. Rick Mitchell went on to say in concluding his column:

Does all this have anything to do with the church's life and mission? You bet it does! It's often been said that God has "no hands but our hands," and I believe that one of God's most favored channels of help for hurting humanity is through those who've made a personal commitment to the 'helping professions.' We can all do our part by being accepting, supportive, and understanding of others' needs -- and our own.
There are at least three areas where people of faith and their congregations can help, ways we can express our loving concern for those afflicted with the undeserved suffering of mental illness:

The importance of destigmatizing mental illness

“The Doctor is “IN” … I wonder if Charles Schultz knew what a service he performed in help to destigmatize seeking help for one’s emotional needs. Insofar as Charlie Brown represented a kind of “every man”, with the help of Charles Schultz, we came to accept the fact that it was OK to be in need of advice, it was OK to admit that our lives were not entirely manageable on our own, it was OK … of course, Schultz’s strips are often deeper than meets the eye.

John Ortberg suggests, rather interestingly, that Jesus himself—whether he knew it or not, implicitly helped lay the ground for the destigmatizing of our inner struggles that can set us apart from others:

Jesus lived a common life. He let his friends see him in unveiled moments of joy, sadness, anger, and fatigue. Jesus’ followers never had to guess whether he was delighted or disappointed. As life was nearing its end, he did not try to convince them he was filled with optimism. He was so transparent, he took the risk of openness and said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.
The importance of reminding strugglers of their innate value and love-worthiness.
Elise Elrod … a transgendered woman from Peace Camp … formerly a successful businessman and pastor before her sexual reassignment surgery … accepting herself has been a long, arduous struggle … she had us repeat at Peace Camp this summer: “I … Y … Q … Y … Q … R”. Now say that faster and faster until you “get it”. (I like you like you are.) Those are important words for all persons … they are words the welcoming and healing church must speak without reservation … and to the words the church must add actions that support the words.

The importance of a supporting community for all of our minds’ times.

Consider the paralyzed man being carried by the four “stretcher-bearers” … what a wonderful image of a community that has learned to serve each other, to be “wounded healers” to one another.

Paul loved to speak of the church as a body, using the human body as a metaphor for the body of faith … in the body there must be great sympathy among all the parts, those that are prominent and those that are modest … Paul suggested that we do well to learn to laugh and cry with one another … and Paul seems to echo the story from the gospels when, in Galatians, he says: “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law.” (Galatians 6:2)

Paul was a wise preacher, and there are wise preachers all around today from whom we can learn in our growth toward being a welcoming and healing congregation.

I like what Rabbi Barry Block told his Chicago congregation recently in a sermon … and might they be challenging, truing words for us here as we seek to be a supporting community? He said:

I pray that our congregation will always be a safe and comfortable place for people with emotional traumas and mental illness. May our hearts be open, reaching out to our neighbors in the hour of deepest depression. May our minds be open, seeking to understand the person whose behavior has become difficult to comprehend. May our doors be open, even to the folks whose mental illnesses have made them most difficult to accept. Let us welcome them all in our congregation and community, with love and caring, with dignity and respect.
In her wonderful memoir of faith, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes about her wise pastor at her Presbyterian church in Marin County:

“Broken things have been on my mind recently and in the lives of people I love. Our wonderful friend Ken died of AIDS—not long after, my friend, Mimi, began to die after a long struggle with a rare blood disease . . .Our preacher, Veronica, said recently that this is life’s nature: that lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet. She said that the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward and that we who are more or less OK for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice and graham crackers.” (p. 106)
One last wise preacher, John Buchanan speaks of: “the least of the least.” These are the ones who are at the bottom of the cultural food chain … those who are pushed out to the farthest margins of existence … these “least of the least” are the ones about whom Jesus spoke when he said: “in as much as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.” The “least of the least” are the ones to whom Jesus directs us to aim our care … and it’s a caring that is intended not just for “the other”, but for all of us, the “least of the least” beyond us as well as the “least of the least” within us each.

Preacher Buchanan says:
The good news is that the healer has come, the “wounded healer,” to use Henri Nouwen’s striking image: the one who touches the leper, the one who welcomes into the kingdom all those on the outside looking in wistfully, the lonely, the isolated, the unloved, the unwanted, the marginal, you and me when we are quarantined for whatever reason, worried, afraid, anxious, guilty, sick in body and soul—reaches out and touches us. The good news is that the healer has come. Jesus is his name.
Dear friends, invite Jesus in … don’t be embarrassed … don’t hide your inner self and your inner pain from God … bring it all … the good … the bad … the ugly … and maybe especially the ugly … bring it all … bring it all … bring it all.

Let us pray:

Psalm 23
a paraphrase by Leslie Brandt

The Lord is my constant companion.
There is no need that God cannot fulfill.
Whether God’s course for me points
to the mountaintops of glorious ecstasy
or to the valleys of human suffering,
God is by my side,
God is ever present with me.
God is close beside me
when I tread the dark streets of danger,
and even when I flirt with death itself,
God will not leave me.
When the pain is severe,
God is near to comfort.
When the burden is heavy,
God is there to lean upon.
When depression darkens my soul,
God touches me with eternal joy.
When I feel empty and alone,
God fills the aching vacuum with God’s power.
My security is in God’s promise
to be near to me always,
and in the knowledge
that God will
never let me go.

We sing together:
O God we call, O God we call,
from deep inside we yearn, from deep inside we yearn,
from deep inside we yearn for you.

Sending Forth
Benediction for All Voices:

As children of God we know we are loved.
With all our questions we know we are accepted.
Let us go forth boldly from this place
to love and serve God in every situation that faces us.
And may the blessing of God –
birth-giver, pain-bearer and life-bringer –
be with us now and always. Amen.

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