Rev. George Miller
August 9, 2015
When beginning seminary the professor of Pastoral Care, Dr. Peggy Way stated “We are biological, chemical creatures dealing with the chronicity of life.”
14 years later this quote still resonates.
It’s a reminder that all the people we meet are complex humans made up of all these different, magnificent, finite pieces that work, don’t work, age, break down and require more than just prayers and positive thoughts.
We are complex, intricate, knowable and all together mysterious.
So when we say “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here” we are making a bigger, bolder statement than we realize…and that we may not always be prepared to follow through on.
For a church or a pastor to say “Accept that you are accepted” is a big deal, but what does that mean, what does it look like and are there any caveats?
This became clear during the recent General Synod. Among the topics were dismantling systems of racism and welcoming those who are transgendered.
It became clear that the UCC’s Open and Affirming campaign has moved beyond the topic of gays and lesbians being welcomed and into newer territory.
One group of people the UCC is being proactive in welcoming is those living with and affected by the reality of mental illness.
Mental illness is not something we talk about in mass gatherings with bullhorns and catchy slogans.
Often times the topic is talked about in private, with hushed tones, if at all.
There is often a sense of silence, shame or guilt. Yet it is a reality, affecting 1 in every 4 people, and appearing throughout many of the folk we have locked up in jail or who are homeless on the street.
Our former Regional Conference Minister, Rev. Sarah Lund, taught a workshop. In it, she shared her family history, as told in her book Blessed are the Crazy.
Rev. Lund talked of her father, a smart, charismatic man who ran a successful business, raised a family and made every day a thrilling moment.
But darkness crept in, as there became mood swings, difficult moments and abuse. As Rev. Lund wrote, she had to learn that “normal doesn’t include lots of yelling, lots of sleeping or lots of beating.”
Her father, as it turns out, was living with bi-polar disorder. Things became so intense her mother fled with the kids and her dad became one of the homeless statistics.
In her book, Rev. Lund asks the difficult, provocative question: “If God is in all places and is present at all times, is God in mental illness?”
At the workshop, people talked of their own realities: a young woman who is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a church dealing with a possible narcissist, a spouse receiving medical care who finds the word “crazy” to be offensive.
Rev. Lund shared a statistic- that 50-60% of people with mental health issues will go to their pastor first, seeking spiritual care.
Yet few churches have a mental health professional as an advisor or on a committee. Nor do many churches talk about this reality or have many parishioners openly share their reality.
Every week I get requests for prayers, but I have yet to hear someone say “Pastor, can you put me on the prayer list because I’m going to a psychologist?”
People will share their cancer diagnoses, but I have not had anyone say “I’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness.”
No one has come up to me to say “I’ve begun a new set of psycho-tropic drugs, can you bless a prayer shawl for me?”
A few brave people have told me their stories or about loved ones living with addiction or personality disorders, but overall in regards to mental illness it has been a mask of silence and secrecy.
But there is hope, and the winds of change.
During Synod, Resolution #6 was passed: “Developing Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaged Congregations for Mental Health.”
It was a time in which our denomination came together in agreement and support. A speaker asked for all those affected by mental illness to stand, and virtually the entire conference center was on their feet, me included.
As Rev. Lund shared, “We are as sick as our secrets” and one way to break the silence and to take down the masks we wear is to “start by naming and owning our story.”
Speaking the truth about mental illness is a brave frontier that our denomination is traveling upon.
Knowing that over 63 million American’s live with it, and about half go without treatment, it is time to start dismantling the silence, shame and feelings of guilt that can come with the reality of mental illness.
My family knows this reality all too well. I had a cousin who was institutionalized, a great-grandfather who attempted suicide, a cousin who had a nervous break-down, and my aunt who was living with schizophrenia.
My aunt has left the biggest imprint upon me. Aunt Margie was gorgeous. She looked like a glamorous Hungarian princess, with upswept platinum hair. She could have passed as a Gabor sister and while growing up she had all the boys calling upon her.
In her twenties she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. This was back in the day when people were treated with electro-shock and my mom used to take her.
When Aunt Margie was on, she was captivating, but when she was off- watch out.
I grew up hearing the hushed stories that adults don’t think kids pay attention to, such as how one morning my uncle woke up with a butcher knife pointed at him.
There was a holiday gathering I was present at in which Aunt Margie was like a person possessed, threatening my grandmother and being taken away by the cops.
We’d get cards from her that looked as if they were done by a child. Mom would get phone calls that were more like prank calls rather than a conversation with a loved one.
Eventually, my aunt became so unstable our family cut off all conversation and contacts. I’d hear stories about how she was walking around town, looking like a homeless Raggedy Ann and the possibility that she was prostituting herself.
…I wonder if my aunt was aware of what was happening, and if so, how scary was it for her?
I wonder if she felt the sting of being alone; if she felt abandoned by my family; if she missed seeing me and my siblings grow up?
My parents thought that by severing all ties with Aunt Margie, she would not be in our lives. The truth is that in her absence she was always present.
Sadly, all these years later I barely recall the very human, ordinary things about her, like the 4th of Julys we spent swimming in the pool and grilling in the backyard.
A few weeks ago a parishioner asked if there was anything in my life that I’d do over.
I wish that I had stayed in contact with Aunt Margie; to have visited, written or called.
I wish I had the professional training I have now so I could have spent time with her, to see beyond her diagnosis, and to let her know I not only loved her, but accepted her.
I now grieve that I had an aunt who stopped existing after I was 9 even though she lived until I was in my early 30’s.
Aunt Margie may have been living with schizophrenia, but she was my aunt.
I say Aunt Margie’s name to drop the mask and to shatter the silence. I shared this difficult truth because today we have a difficult scripture.
It’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He is at the synagogue teaching and just blowing people away with how much he knows and how powerful his presence is.
Immediately a man cries out “Why are you bothering us Jesus? Have you come to kick us out, Holy One of God?”
He is an unnamed man living with an unclean spirit within him. He is also the first to know just who Jesus is and the powerful healing that comes with his name.
“Stop the restlessness,” Jesus commands the spirit, “And leave that man be.”
After much crying and convulsions, the entity leaves the man and those in the synagogue are amazed.
Modern ears have a hard time with this story. It is difficult for some to believe. Are we to see this as a scene from The Exorcist or is there something else going on here?
Many of today’s progressive scholars don’t really believe in the existence of the demonic. Demons and the work of the devil are not topics the UCC typically talks about.
Those with medical backgrounds may describe this as an ancient account of an encounter with someone living with an extreme form of mental illness.
Either way we wish to perceive this story, one tract of thought is clear- Jesus in his compassionate way of being, is not one to be afraid of someone who is different.
Jesus is not about to ostracize or shame an innocent other. Nor is Jesus about to let himself be victimized or ignore the situation.
Jesus approaches the man with authority, with understanding, and with courage and says the words that need to be said; words that can bring wholeness and healing.
Instead of allowing this man to suffer alone or to be cut off from communion with the others, Jesus does something about it.
Jesus speaks. He breaks the silence. He interacts with the man and his spirit.
Jesus offers a chance of well-being. He accepts the man even if he seems to be unacceptable.
Jesus does an act that makes the Kingdom of God more present not just to the unclean spirit or to the man, but to all who are there.
Jesus seizes upon an opportunity that appears to be scary and makes it safe.
Jesus seizes upon a situation that’s illogical and brings about order.
So why have I not preached on this scripture before? Why don’t we talk about this kind of story more often?
It’s different. It’s difficult. It goes against common sense.
And yet…and yet every day we hear the stories about people doing extreme things that seem to make no sense at all.
The depressed mother who drives her car with her children into the ocean.
The comedian who commits suicide.
The teacher arrested for pedophilia.
The loner who enters a house of worship and guns the people down.
The TV father who’s been drugging and raping women for years all while telling young black men to pull their pants up.
All of these are situations in which someone clearly is living with an unclean spirit and with the reality of a mental illness or a personality disorder.
Then there are the more mundane, quiet forms of mental illness, the kind many experience: the grieving widower who simply can’t move beyond his wife’s death.
The teen dealing with mild depression and understandable angst. The friend suffering from anxiety in making major life choices.
Sometimes we don’t get it, or we make fun of it, or we become irate, but the root causes of some people’s behaviors go back to the reality that we are all biological, chemical creatures dealing with the chronicity of life.
Does a mental health diagnosis excuse what happens? Does it wipe away any hurt that’s caused? Does it replace lives lost or relationships fractured?
But knowing about the reality of mental illness and the ability to talk about it, allows for understanding, allows for compassion. It allows for grace and it allows Jesus to enter in and to bring about change.
…So, we have been talking about mental illness, talking of General Synod, talking of my Aunt Margie, talking of the demon being rebuked.
We’ve done enough talking. Now, what is the Good News?
The Good News is that the UCC is not afraid of discussing the topic of mental illness. Nor are we a denomination that wants to exclude, punish or ignore those in our lives and community who are living with this reality.
The Good News is that if you are living with mental illness, you are not alone.
The Good news is that if your family has its own Aunt Margie, you are not alone.
If you are affected by someone in your life living with mental illness, you are not alone.
In Christ, no one is alone. In Christ, no one has to feel ashamed.
Jesus meets us where we are, as we are and speaks in such a way that healing comes about, casting out what needs to be cast out.
Silencing what needs to be silenced. Restoring what needs to be restored.
All this to ensure that we can enjoy full lives in God’s Kingdom here on Earth.
As Christians we are not created to ignore, turn our back or to demonize another. We are called to love them.
To offer the opportunity for healing and wholeness. To welcome them into the community.
Yes, there are those who are as chaotic as a storm at sea and can seem demon possessed.
But one of the first steps of grace and hope we can offer is to say “We accept you and accept that you are accepted.”
What this means is that as Christians we can call upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit to allow for patience and grace, gentleness and love, speaking the truth and offering open arms.
It means that for some people we may need to create boundaries and safe-guards but within those boundaries we allow room to grow and mistakes to be made.
It means not making excuses for people or treating them as incapable of making correct choices, but allowing for compassionate accountability.
It also means accepting the fact that we are not the messiahs who will single-handily bring about change and redemption, but that it is God through Christ who can transform, cast out and restore.
In the mean time, for those living with mental illness either personally or in their lives, we offer our patience, our listening ear, our loving heart, and a hand to hold.
As sisters and brothers in Christ, we say “It is not as dark as you think and you are not as alone in this as you may feel.”
Starting today, we can embrace our name: Emmanuel- God is with Us, and to support resolution #6, and to find our own way to speak about mental illness.
In doing so, we can reduce the shame, reduce the secrecy, reduce the feeling of guilt that some may hold onto.
In doing so, we participate in God’s Kingdom being grander than we ever could have realized.
In Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, let us all say “Amen.”