Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sermon for February 14 / Lent 2

Storms and Stigmas
February 14, 2016
One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and started out. As they sailed across, Jesus settled down for a nap. But soon a fierce storm came down on the lake. The boat was filling with water, and they were in real danger. The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Suddenly the storm stopped and all was calm. Then he asked them, “Where is your faith?” The disciples were terrified and amazed. “Who is this man?” they asked each other. “When he gives a command, even the wind and waves obey him!” ~ Luke 8:22-25 NLT (See also, Luke 4:1-13)
Have you ever wondered if Jesus was mentally ill? If we take some of the stories of the gospel as vignettes that capture actual events in the life of Jesus, and we examine them through a modern psychological lens, Jesus can look like he has some mental health challenges.

Take the story we heard about the temptation of Jesus. He is alone in the desert, without food for 40 days.  Have you ever wondered what the effect of that is on the body? One study tracked an anonymous monk who undertook a 40-day fast, with no food intake at all except for daily communion, about 60 calories per day. After thoroughly measuring every baseline of health before the man started fasting, researchers took daily and weekly measurements until day 36. During this time, the monk lost around 34.5 pounds, and developed symptoms of severe low blood pressure, to the point where he needed almost half an hour just to stand up in the morning. The monk stopped his fast on day 36 when profound weakness interfered with his daily activities in the monastery. Now imagine Jesus in this compromised state -- hungry, thirsty, physically fatigued, emotionally exposed -- when he starts having conversations with the devil, who mystically transports Jesus from the desert to the ramparts of the Temple in Jerusalem and entices Jesus to hurl himself to the ground for God’s glory to be shown.

Can you imagine with me an alternative reading of this text? Can you imagine Jesus alone in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days, realizing that if he follows through on his plan to oppose the Roman occupation and preach subversive love, he will be killed? Can you imagine Jesus indulging a fantasy in which he wrestles with suicide instead of going through with the torture and death that he will face?

Or, consider the story of the calming of the storm. As Luke tells the story, Jesus and the disciples are on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. A violent squall explodes. Wind and waves flood the boat. Most of the disciples are fishermen. They know bad weather. They know the ins and outs of that lake. Even they are afraid of drowning. And Jesus just sleeps, like a gentle baby being rocked to sleep. Can you imagine a scenario with me where Jesus is so exhausted from the demands of his ministry, so tired and worn out, maybe even depressed, that not even a storm at sea can rouse him from sleep? Or, what if Jesus had acute hypersomnia, or excessive daytime sleepiness? The frightened disciples finally get Jesus to wake up. He seems annoyed, calming the storm, maybe so he can go back to sleep. Commentators always tell us this story is a reminder that Jesus brings peace to the chaos of the seas and the chaos of our minds – that Jesus removes fear from both. But, what if that story has its roots in a real experience of emotional fatigue or depression within Jesus himself?

It may be offensive to you to think about Jesus as suffering from mental illness. If that’s the case, I wonder if it’s because we have so stigmatized mental illness, we need to protect ourselves and our saviors from it. Why would it be so appalling to think that some of our most inspirational forebears might have experienced mental health illness? Why is it that we believe God cannot or will not work through people with mental health challenges? Do we think that mental illness is a condition that makes us less able to do God’s work, or unable to participate in worship meaningfully? Does mental illness somehow disqualify us from doing God’s work of building peaceable communities and establishing lives of compassionate justice?

And who just who do we think “these people” are? Statistics show us that one in four people will suffer from mental health illness during their lives. That figure is based on those who go for help; the true figure is likely to be even higher. That means in a congregation of 100 worshippers, at least 24 of us currently experience mental health issues. Mental health and illness are part of human living; they are often caused by life experience such as grief, trauma and loss. Breakdowns happen to most us and none of us should have to suffer in silence for fear of what others might think or say.

  • 1 out of 100 of us will live with schizophrenia.
  • 3 out of 100 of us will live with bi-polar disorder.
  • 7 will experience major depression.
  • 7 more will have an anxiety disorders.
  • 11 of us, about one half of those who struggle with chronic mental illness, began suffering by the time they were 14 years old. We often don’t accept the fact that our children and youth are struggling until their suffering has gone on far too long.

I’m sure there are many of us here today who know about mental illness from our own personal experience, or through living with a family member with mental illness, or through professional involvement with clients and co-workers.  Mental illnesses are real conditions that occur in real people. They are not a sign of weakness or an excuse; they involve real suffering and need understanding and appropriate responses, just like any other condition from which we might suffer.

Here is what’s not helpful: Those who suffer don’t need people saying, “Pull yourself together,” or, “I’m so sorry for you.” And those who suffer do not need politicians blaming all episodes of public violence on mental illness, either. Certainly, the public conversation around gun control and mental illness, in which certain politicians place the blame for incidents of gun violence on the mentally ill, has not helped encourage people to talk about their own mental illness or to lend a hand to those in emotional crisis. A 2013 study out of the Johns Hopkins says that efforts to imply that all, or even most, incidents of gun violence are at the hands of the mentally ill only serves to increase the stigma directed towards those who suffer. Reports also indicate that the vast majority of gun violence is committed by people who are not mentally ill.

No wonder people are afraid. Stigmatizing mental illness in such a way – making it something dangerous, something to fear – isolates those who struggle and prevents people from getting help.

If we are following the teaching of Jesus – who suffers our human troubles and meets us where we are in life, who reaches out to us in empathy, in love and healing – then churches like CCC will be places of welcome, friendship and acceptance. It is our ministry to educate ourselves about mental health and to make sure that our welcome is appropriate and that no-one who enters our church experiences prejudice or feels stigmatized. 

Larry Duff brought the NAMI StigmaFree Pledge to my attention a couple of months ago. I printed information about it in the bulletin. I think committing to this pledge will help us fulfill our aim of being a church that welcomes people of all abilities. The pledge has three steps:

  • Educate Yourself and Others 
  • See the Person and Not the Illness 
  • Take Action on Mental Health Issues

Our mental health care systems have been in crisis for far too long and often keep treatment and recovery out of the hands of many who need it. It used to be that only the rich could afford to get mental health care. Today, health insurers are required to cover the treatment of mental illnesses. The opportunity to talk with a caring professional who understands how the brain works, the chance to take medications that provide some relief from emotional pain, and the availability of emergency care to prevent harm to self or others are effective resources. Because of huge advances in public perception and brain research, people who otherwise might not be able to get out of bed are living, working, loving, and finding meaning in their lives.

I’ve read many online testimonies of Christians who talk about their mental health struggles. I appreciate one person who wrote these words: 
“Every time I face that dark abyss of suffering and survive to see another day, I see God’s faithfulness to me even more clearly. If I had the power to control my own life, I would avoid everything unpleasant or uncomfortable, but then I would never see God’s power to overcome evil and to shine light in the darkness. If I never suffered, I would never have any reason to grow or change. If I didn’t have these hard times, I wouldn’t have the chance to exercise my faith and grow in hope.”
She goes on to write: 
“I consider my mental illness to be a part of a spiritual gift of suffering … With every season of pain, I grow in compassion for others, in appreciation of God’s mercy and in the strength God gives me to handle pain and discomfort. As my capacity for suffering grows, so does my capacity to feel joy, peace and every other fruit of God’s Holy Spirit. God has used what, on the surface, seems like pointless and unredeemable misery and has turned it into my secret strength. God has used my illness and weakness to slowly and purposefully mold me into the beloved reflection of my creator, the ‘new creation’ that [God] intends me to be.”
She concludes with these words: 
“I don’t know why I am depressed. I don’t know why I am only apathetic when the sadness is gone. I don’t know why I am once again disgusted to be in my own skin. I don’t know why I am still fighting the same fight I have since as long as I can remember. I don’t know why I am so ready to give up. I don’t know why I am happiest when I am alone. I don’t know why I am having so much trouble finishing a single task. But I do know that I am not alone in my struggle. I know that there are others like me who don’t know what they need to get better or how others can help or why they feel the way they do. I know that bad things happen to good people and I know that just because you have a bad day it doesn’t mean you’re having a bad life. I know that tomorrow holds endless possibilities and that my future is but a few breaths away … I know that Christ loves me the same as he does a healthy person and the same as people who may be [sicker] that I am. I know that there is hope in a world so seemingly bleak. I know that there is calm before the storm but also that the storm wears itself out. I know that I have made it this far and I can make it one more day.”
All in the Family: Faith Issues for Families Dealing with Addiction by Rita B. Hays, p 127

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