Sunday, December 9, 2018

Advent is a Strange Time (a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent)


This is a sermon preached for St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Wilson, NC, on this snowy 2nd Sunday of Advent. You can read the scripture texts for this Sunday by clicking here

My thanks to the Rev. Marty Stebbins for the invitation to share this message and the 30 or so hardy souls who braved the snow and freezing rain to make it to one of the services at St. Timothy's this morning! 

You can listen to the audio or read the manuscript below:



 
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Advent is a strange sort of time.

There’s an obvious way in which this strangeness manifests itself. While the secular world gears up for Christmas with full tinsel-shimmer and holiday-music glee, this season of the church year is filled with urgings to wait, to prepare, to quiet down, to watch out, to keep awake. The mood of Advent is not celebratory so much as solemn, in marked contrast to the “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” pageantry going on around us. And this season is a season of contrast, of darkness and of light, as days continue to shorten and nights lengthen. The candle-light of Advent is, by its very nature, a juxtaposition, a flickering in the dark.

Advent is perched on an edge.

But Advent time is strange in a less obvious way as well. The texts of Advent, during this season of waiting for the coming of the Christ-child, do not proceed in neat chronological fashion from prediction to preparation to prophetic fulfillment. Rather, time in our Advent texts seems to exist outside of the boundaries of chronology. Take, for example, today’s gospel reading from Luke – here we are in the second Sunday of Advent, and we’ve jumped ahead to a story about John the Baptist in the wilderness, well after the birth of Jesus – in fact, “where we are in the story” is just before Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry. And we also heard Paul’s words to the church in Phillipi, with his prayer for the “day of Christ” – by which Paul means, not the birth of baby Jesus in a manger, but the future second coming of this Jesus.

So we are here, in the second Sunday of Advent, waiting for something that, in the words we have read, has already happened and maybe will even happen again….

Time, in Advent, is strange.

And this strange chronological mashup is even more evident because the gospel text from Luke is so very time-bound. Hear again the not exactly scintillating words that open our gospel reading today: “In the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

This is the wrong way to start a story.  You should start the story by saying, “THE WORD OF GOD CAME TO JOHN” – that’s the dramatic part – and then maybe you could footnote all the rulers and the reigns and the high priests.

But the writer of Luke’s gospel seems to make this choice quite intentionally. We, the hearers of this story, know at the very beginning that this is not “once upon a time” or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” not the outside-of-time vagaries of a fairy tale or fantasy epic – this is a story grounded in a very specific place, a very specific time, a very specific political and religious and social context. We need to know that context, the story seems to tell us, in order for the coming of the Word of God to make much sense. And while scholars struggle to pin down exactly what year these various reigns and priesthoods would line up with, narratively the point has been made: the story you are about to hear happens in time. And this matters greatly, because things that happen in time also happen in reality. They happen, so to speak, “in the flesh.”

Which is exactly where we end up by the end of this morning’s gospel reading. “All flesh,” the text says. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Not all spirits. Not all souls. Not even all people. All. Flesh. God’s salvation – the Greek word, by the way, could also be translated as “healing” or “making whole” – the salvation, the healing, the making whole of God will be experienced in the flesh.

And so Advent time is strange, for while we cannot seem to settle narratively on whether we are talking about the past, or the present, or the future, we at the same time are being told, rather directly, that Advent time is not timelessness. This thing we are preparing for, waiting for, paying attention to, keeping awake for – it is a thing that happens in the flesh, in real time. The images called up by today’s texts, of the leveling of heights and the filling of depths, the throwing off of sorrow and affliction, the harvesting of righteousness and the overflowing of love, these are not, Luke’s gospel seems to be telling us, realities of some imagined future but of the here, and the now – of this place, of this context, yes, even under these powerful and corrupt political and religious authorities – the Word of the Lord comes right here. Right now.

And yet we wait. And we prepare. For some future manifestation of this immediate demand. How do we make sense of the strange contradictions, the strange time, of Advent?

I am reminded of a story told by the great Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, Dean Emeritus of Marsh Chapel at Boston University and a mentor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – a story that is particularly appropriate for a “wintry mix” sort of day. “Several years ago,” Thurman once wrote, “I spent three wintry days visiting Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. A young medical student drove me in his car to keep various appointments….There was quite a ceremony every time he started out. First, he would let his clutch out slowly, applying the gas very gently as he chanted, ‘Even a little energy applied directly to an object, however large, will move it, if steadily applied and given sufficient time to work.’ Not once during our experience was our car stalled in the snow.”

Thurman went on to say this: “Of course, this young man knew how to wait. Waiting was not inactivity; it was not resignation; it was a dynamic process….Sometimes I think that patience is one of the great characteristics that distinguishes God from humans. God knows how to wait, dynamically; everybody else is in a hurry. Some things cannot be forced but they must unfold, sending their tendrils deep into the heart of life, gathering strength and power with the unfolding days.”

To borrow Dr. Thurman’s language this morning: Advent is not forced. But it must unfold. And as unfolds, as it sends its tendrils deep into our hearts, we find ourselves recipients of the coming of the Word of God – not in some timeless, disembodied neverland, but here. Now. In real time. In the flesh. In times like these.

I need this Advent time. I am, I confess, often in a hurry for all the wrong reasons – a fear of missing appointments, a need to look busy, a rushing on to the next thing. I am, too often, driven by time, a victim of time, expending my little energy frenetically in all directions, rather than allowing for the steady unfolding of that which is essential. Our Advent narratives are not on to the next thing, and then the next, and then the next – rather, they orbit in time around the heart of things, the salvation which all flesh will see.

It seems to me, looking around at times like these, that the mountains and valleys which stand between the way of the Lord and all flesh are as high as ever. The divisions and barriers which keep us separated into our small worlds have not, despite the promises of technology and globalization, disappeared but have all the more so dug in their heels. The splitting up of “all flesh” into different kinds of flesh, different kinds of skin, different nationalities and ethnicities and political silos, seems to me to continue unabated. The economic gaps which separate rich from poor seem only to deepen and deepen. And sometimes these seem to me like immovable mountains to flatten, unbridgeable valleys to fill. And yet, as Howard Thurman’s young chauffeur reminds us, “Even a little energy applied directly to an object, however large, will move it, if steadily applied and given sufficient time to work.”

And so we begin, now, even with our limited human energy, steadily applying it to the mountains and the valleys of injustice, of violence, of disease, of addiction, of ignorance, of fear. Steadily applying our little energies to the barriers which seem to stand between our very human flesh and the healing of God. Steadily applying our voices, our actions, our prayers, our attention. Giving even our little energies sufficient time to work.

Perhaps Advent time,
        however strange,
            is sufficient time
                    to work.

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Notes:
Quotation from Howard Thurman,
Deep is the Hunger: Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, Seventh Reprinting, 2000), pg. 53.

I owe the contrast between urgency and "that which is essential" to Henri Nouwen, as for example in his Letters to Marc About Jesus: Living a Spiritual Life in a Material World (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), pg. 3: "if I were to let my life be taken over by what is urgent, I might very well never get around to what is essential."

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Mental Health Voting in 2018

Obligatory voting selfie
Like a whole lot of the rest of the country, I've been hearing a ton about voting these days. 

It's midterm election season, of course, and races all over the country are being closely watched. I've been thinking and posting quite a bit about voting in order to work toward a better mental health system. As I've shared my story of mental health struggles and recovery over the past year, I've become increasingly aware of the need to challenge the systemic brokenness of our mental healthcare system in this country. We can't encourage people to challenge stigma by sharing their stories if we're not also working to break down the barriers to care that keep people sick and silent. 

And so as I shared on social media, I voted this year thinking about mental health, about protections for millions of people like myself with preexisting conditions, about the Medicaid expansion that I relied on for health care coverage during an important time of my life:


But what does it mean to vote for a better mental health system? NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has some good information on their #Vote4MentalHealth website.  And while I'll be trying to articulate some more thorough responses to that question throughout this year as I work on my next book, Grace is a Preexisting Condition, I thought it would be important to share a few thoughts of my own during this midterm election week. Maybe many of you have already voted, as I have, in a state with early voting, but if you haven't, here's a few things to think about as you go to the polls.

Mental Health Voters in 2018 Should...

...Vote to protect coverage for preexisting conditions and parity in coverage for mental health. Bipolar disorder, like many other mental health conditions, is considered a preexisting condition. Prior to the ACA's protection of coverage for preexisting conditions, it was entirely legal for insurance companies to deny coverage based on preexisting conditions, including but not limited to mental health conditions. In fact, this was exactly my experience, as I've written about here. Any attempt to repeal or dismantle the ACA without a viable replacement that protects preexisting conditions will be harmful to folks with mental health struggles. And in fact, the federal government has joined with 20 states to argue in federal court against these protections, while at the same time allowing for healthcare plans which lack such protections and which also lack mental health parity, another issue that the ACA was designed to address. Mental health voters should challenge these attempts to return to the discriminatory policies of the past at the federal and state levels.

...Vote to expand Medicaid. 
As I mentioned earlier, I relied on expanded Medicaid to access mental and physical healthcare during a crucial time in my recovery. Many people with mental health struggles lack the resources to access care; the expansion of Medicaid, while not a magic fix, would provide coverage for millions more people including people with mental health struggles.

...Refuse to let mental health struggles be used as a scapegoat for difficult political conversations.
I've written more extensively about this topic here and here, but after acts of violence (particularly when the perpetrator of the violence is a white male), mental illness is often brought up as the "real issue" in order to avoid difficult political conversations around guns, extremism, gender, and race. This is in spite of the fact that people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violence in this country. Mental health voters in 2018 are willing to have a robust conversation about the importance of mental health care in creating a safer society for all, without allowing people with mental health struggles to be used as scapegoats by politicians who, often, turn out to not really be serious about the conversation around mental health care.

...Recognize that homelessness and mass incarceration have taken the place of a functioning mental health system in our country. 
I've written a bit here about institutions and deinstitutionalization. It's a complex topic in many ways, but one thing that is clear is that deinstitutionalization, while originally designed to end abuses and put more of a focus on care in community, has actually -- when paired with budget cuts to health care and community programs -- led to homelessness and an increase in mass incarceration. Mental health voters in 2018 will pay attention to rhetoric around homelessness, incarceration, and crime, knowing that often these conversations demonize people who are in fact struggling with mental health and trauma.

...Recognize that tax cuts for those with the most mean losses in care and services for those with the least.
Related to the last point, we'll pay attention to budget cuts -- often hidden under language about tax cuts -- which continue to make it difficult for people to receive the care they need, whether in a psychiatric bed or in a community setting.

...Recognize that behind headlines about drug overdoes and the opioid crisis are stories about mental health struggles, substance abuse disorders, and trauma. 
We ought to be talking about the public health crisis of opioid addiction -- as we ought previously to have talked about crack cocaine in terms of public health rather than crime (see the point above about language around incarceration and crime) -- and we ought to be talking about it in terms of underlying causes such as substance abuse disorders, trauma, and mental health struggles. If politicians are seeking to use the opioid crisis to bolster their campaigns but aren't talking about increasing resources for care and recovery while decreasing punitive measures and homelessness, we should raise questions. And if they're doing so while also talking about cutting taxes for those with the most, we ought to remind them of the previous point: tax cuts for those with the most mean losses in care and services for those with the least.

And finally, mental health voters in 2018 should refuse to shame or demonize people whose voting behavior is different than their own. 
I think it's really important to vote this year. I also think we shouldn't shame or demonize people who don't vote or who vote differently than us, especially when we're talking about mental health voting. For some people with severe mental illness, getting to the polls or accessing the polls is difficult under normal circumstances, much less in a time in which voting rights are being eroded by voter ID laws, the closing of polling places, and the purging of voter rolls. Rather than criticizing those who don't vote, we ought to be voting with those who can't get to the polls in mind, while helping cast an inspiring vision that can catch the hopes and interest of those who might, in the past, have stayed home out of disengagement and disinterest. Those of us with mental health struggles ought to understand, more than anyone, that feelings of disengagement and disconnection can be really powerful, and that shaming and demonizing language, far from motivating us, tends to drive us deeper into the corner. 

Obviously, there's many more aspects of this conversation to consider, but these are a few topics I've noticed rattling around in the political sphere this year. So if you are able to vote, consider these thoughts about mental health voting. The more we tell our stories, the more the system will have to change. The more the system changes, the more people will be able to access care. The more people are able to access care, the more sacred stories we will be privileged to hear.

My next book, Grace is a Preexisting Condition, will tackle conversations at the intersection of faith, practice, and the mental health system. You can learn more about my first book, Christ on the Psych Ward, here






"Showing Up" -- A sermon for All Saints' and the Sunday before midterm elections



I was invited to preach at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Fayetteville on Sunday, November 4, which was All Saints' Sunday as well as the Sunday before the 2018 midterm elections. My sermon was called "Showing Up," and was based on Exodus 1:8-22 and Luke 18:1-8.

I was nervous to preach this sermon. But this has been a year, and a week, of stepping outside of some of my comfort zones, and this felt like an important time to take a risk.

(I snapped the photo to the left, of a rabbi addressing the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C., during a Poor People's Campaign rally this past summer.)





You can listen to the sermon, and/or read the manuscript, below:




“Showing Up”
A Sermon for All Saints and the Sunday Before Midterms
First Christian Church of Fayetteville
November 4, 2018

I’ll be honest with y’all. My heart has felt heavy over these past few weeks.
            My heart has felt heavy as it has stretched to absorb a recent national news cycle dominated by violence and threats of violence. Last Saturday, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the history of our country occurred in Pittsburgh, with a shooter targeting Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Earlier that same week, there was a deadly shooting at a grocery store in Kentucky in which the perpetrator first attempted to attack a predominantly African American church. Both shooters, in other words, targeted faith communities – places that should be sanctuaries, places of refuge – and targeted these faith communities out of bigotry and hatred.
            And of course all of this happened in the course of two weeks with headline news about bombs being sent to prominent political figures and journalists, with a divisive political environment that seems deeply committed to playing on the worst fears and biases of our public debate, with confusing announcements of troop deployments which I know have impacted folks here in Fayetteville, with a shooting of a state trooper and a shooting following a fight at a high school here in North Carolina, with a shooting at a yoga studio in Florida which killed a college student and a college professor and was again preceded by racist and misogynistic rants from the shooter – friends, my heart has been heavy this week.
            So I don’t know about you, but I know I am in need of the words of Jesus this morning. I need a story that Jesus tells his disciples and friends. A story about their need to pray always. And not to lose heart.
              It’s a story about showing up, over and over again, in the face of seemingly impossible odds. It’s a story about wearing down structures of power and injustice and violence. It’s a story about refusing to lose heart.
            “In a certain city,” Jesus says, there is a public official, whose job it is supposed to be to serve people, particularly, as in this story, people like a widow, vulnerable to mistreatment and harm in their society. And yet this corrupt public official cares little for a God of love and justice, and has no respect for the people he is meant to serve. Can you imagine?
            Now this widow – someone who, in the ancient world, would have been viewed as personally and economically vulnerable – goes to this corrupt official and asks for a measure of protection and equal treatment. The official ignores her claims. And, to be frank, “Powerful man ignores powerless woman” isn’t frontpage news. That’s just the way things go, right? Game over, widow – time to go home.
            But this widow refuses to stay home. She keeps showing up and showing up and showing up until the official exclaims, “I can’t take it anymore! Sure, I don’t care about God or about people, but I’m going to give this woman justice so that she doesn’t keep coming back and wearing me out.”
            Now remember, friends, this is a story Jesus tells about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Jesus is giving us a picture here of prayer that is not just about bowed heads and closed eyes. A picture of hope that is not about wishful thinking or sunny optimism. In this story, prayer is pictured as a showing up, in body and in spirit and in voice, a showing up with the conviction that the impossible is possible. Showing up for justice, showing up for mercy, showing up for the good and the right, showing up again and again until even powerful corrupt people with no respect for God or for anyone are so worn out that they just do the right thing out of fatigue – this, says Jesus, is what prayer looks like. This is a form of prayer that we pray with our whole lives. When we show up like this, Jesus says, the God who is a Just Judge, a Merciful Judge – this God shows up with us. This showing-up faith is the cure, says Jesus, for a heavy heart.
            Our Hebrew Bible reading today gives us yet another picture of folks who show up for what is good and right; two more Jewish women, just like that persistent widow, who refused to lose heart. Shiprah and Puah were Hebrew midwives. Their people were oppressed, enslaved under Pharoah. They were ordered to assist Pharoah in his hateful and genocidal scheme against the Israelites; but they refused to obey this immoral and unjust order. Instead, they resisted in the most important way they knew how – they showed up and they did their jobs, with persistence and moral courage. They continued to deliver and care for children in spite of the edicts of powerful corrupt people with no respect for God or anyone. And when they were questioned, they cleverly played on the same racist and bigoted tropes that the powerful ruling class believed about their people, saying, “Oh, you know those Hebrew women, like big animals, pushing out babies before we even get there!” Subverting the very lies being told about their people in order to save their people. And they kept doing what they knew they were called to do. And they kept saving the lives of children. They kept providing health care for people who were supposed to be denied coverage by the Egyptian Pharoah Health Care System. And in spite of the impossible odds against them, they didn’t lose heart. They prayed with their whole lives. They showed up.
            When I reflect on the showing-up prayer of the persistent widow, the showing-up faith of the Hebrew midwives, I can’t help but think of other examples of those who have refused to lose heart, who have shown out their faith by showing up, even in the face of violence, in the face of hate, in the face of impossible odds.
            I’m thinking today of the medical team at Alleghany General Hospital, many of whom are Jewish, who treated Robert Bowers, the man who killed 11 people and wounded 7 at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In an interview, Dr. Jeff Cohen, the president of Alleghany General and synagogue attendee, said that the shooter was like a lot of people his team treats in the hospital – “some mother’s son,” said Cohen, who was “scared and confused and didn’t quite understand.” Of his medical team, Cohen said, “They did their job. They confronted the problem and they were true to their core beliefs.” Understand that Cohen’s team treated Bowers even as he continued to hurl anti-Semitic threats and insults at them. And how did he and his team respond? They showed up, and they did their jobs, and they were true to their beliefs, even and especially in the face of violence and hatred. They treated a man because he was a human being, because human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect – the humanizing impulse that is the opposite of violence and bigotry. I learn from these doctors what faith looks like. They showed up. They did their jobs. They didn’t lose heart.
            I’m thinking today of February, 1960 – of Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond – four African American men, young men at the time, students at North Carolina A&T University, who started the sit-in movement at a lunch counter in Greensboro. These four students who decided, in the course of a late-night hangout in their dorm room, to stand up for the good and the right by sitting down where they were told “people like them” were not supposed to sit. Just four of them, at first – but of course, that’s two more supporters than the midwives had at first and three more than the patient widow. Just four of them, but soon their friends came, and friends of friends, and then when college students left for summer break, high school students started showing up to take their place. And they challenged a system of segregation that cared little for a God of equity and justice, a system that had no respect for people. And they wore down the powers that be. Oh, friends, never doubt that when young people, when high schoolers and college students decide not to give up on something that they can’t wear you down eventually! From these students, and from their modern-day equivalents who stand up and speak out and walk out and sit down for what they believe in, I learn what faith looks like. I learn what it means to pray with our whole lives. I learn what it means to show up.
            And I am thinking, this morning in particular, of my parents. My father, Gary, a two-tour Vietnam veteran who has struggled with mental and physical health conditions throughout my life, showed up yesterday to knock on doors and encourage people to vote along with my wife Leigh and me. My father is 79 years old, and he walked miles with us yesterday, standing with us as we encouraged people to show up to the polls. On Tuesday, my mother Marion, a retired public school teacher, will be volunteering for 12 hours at the polls, making sure people, no matter their political party or identity, are able to exercise their democratic right and responsibility.
My parents are retired. In my opinion, they’ve earned a bit of a right to relax, to unplug, to remove themselves from the fray. They could, if they wanted, just stay home. And yet they refuse to just stay home. They are showing up this week because they refuse to lose heart. Because hope doesn’t look like wishful thinking. It looks like walking miles and knocking doors and talking to people who might or might not agree with you, talking in a way that humanizes and respects our shared dignity. They are showing up. Because prayer doesn’t just look like closed eyes and bowed heads but like a commitment of our whole lives. A showing-up kind of faith.
            Friends, on this Sunday, we honor All Saints Day – a day to remember that we are surrounded by a great cloud of faithful witnesses who have persevered, who have run the race, who have shown us a showing-up kind of faith. Perhaps you have your own saints you remember this day, people who showed up for you, whose names and memories you honor and whose stories give you hope and remind you not to lose heart. I want you to add some saints to your list today. I want you to include on your list a patient widow, whose name may be forgotten to us, but who Jesus holds up as an example of how to pray always and not to lose heart. I want you to include on your list of saints Shiprah and Puah, Hebrew midwives who showed up and provided care and saved lives in the face of violence and threats of violence. I want you to include on your list an innumerable caravan of saints who march onward throughout the pages of our faith history, praying with their whole lives – saints who, we proclaim by faith, continue to show up with us so that we never show up alone.
            And I want us all to remember that list of saints this week, as we commit ourselves, once again, to praying with our whole lives, to not losing heart, to showing up. Jesus asks us, at the end of this story, “When the Son of Man comes – when the One Who is Most Human shows up with humanity – will such a showing-up faith be found on earth?” Friends, what would it take this week for us to be able to answer Jesus: “Yes, that faith is here”?
            Perhaps it would take showing up at the polls and voting, not out of fear of the Other, but out of hope for a world in which all are cared for and human dignity is respected. I’m not talking about particular candidates or parties or constitutional amendments here – I’m talking about demanding a politics based on dignity and humanity and values. I’m talking about showing up for justice, for mercy, for the possibility of a kinder and better world.
            Perhaps it would take showing up to care for those who are most vulnerable in our society, to ensure that the modern-day equivalents of the persistent widow don’t have to stand up for justice on their own, but are joined by us as part of their great cloud of witnesses.
            Perhaps it would take showing up in our relationships, in our caregiving, in our jobs, in our daily interactions, in a way that shows forth our values, that refuses to let our differences divide us but rather calls us all back to our shared dignity and humanity.
            Perhaps it takes walking, or marching, or sitting-in, or standing up, or having difficult conversations, or holding hands, or speaking up, or singing out.
            Perhaps it takes thousands upon thousands of seemingly small, insignificant acts, in the face of impossible odds, in the face of violence and threats of violence, in the face of bigotry and fear – thousands upon thousands of acts of praying with our whole lives, of showing up, of refusing to lose heart.
            Friends, I confess to you. My heart has been heavy these past few weeks. And so I need the words of Jesus this morning, reminding me that there is a cure for a heavy heart. And that cure looks like a persistent widow. It looks like two Jewish midwives. It looks like a type of prayer that is a commitment of our whole lives. And it looks like a faith that shows up.
            May we make it so – by the grace of God.    
             
           

Monday, July 9, 2018

#MoreStoriesMonday: Brittany Packnett and suicide prevention in black communities

Today I'm starting something I'm calling #MoreStoriesMonday. I shared about this a previous post about what I've been hearing and learning during my Christ on the Psych Ward book tour.

Whenever I give talks, I always begin by saying that I want my story to be the start of a conversation, not the end of it. My story isn't a universal one, and it doesn't touch on or raise all of the topics that we need to be addressing in order to have a full, robust conversation about mental illness in our our faith communities or mental health in this country. So every Monday I'll be sharing different stories, different voices, and different resources that I hope will help us have a bigger, broader, deeper conversation.



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I wanted to start this Monday with a story from Brittany Packnett, an activist and educator who, among other things, was an appointed member of the Ferguson Commission and President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Recently, after the deaths by suicide of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, Packnett shared a video on Twitter to raise awareness of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and her own experience relying on the help line, saying "I have battled depression my entire adult life. I have had suicidal thoughts multiple times. When I give you all that suicide prevention lifeline phone number (@800273talk), I’m not just recounting random numbers: I’ve called it. It saved my life.":
In addition to sharing her own story, Packnett has addressed the topic in other forums such as Pod Save America, a podcast she co-hosts. In an episode called "Protect the Win," she spoke about recent research about a rise in suicidal behaviors among young people, and specifically about the impact of stigma on suicide prevention in black communities (her segment begins around minute 20):
Black teen rates have actually doubled, and Native youth rates of suicide continue to remain at crisis levels. But even though we now know this is true because people have done more reporting, people of color are historically misclassified and undercounted in suicide data....So we don't know as much as we should know about how this is affecting more marginalized communities....This is deeply related to the fact that mental health is taboo in many communities of color, including black communities. 
I was struck by Brittany Packnett's courage and vulnerability in sharing her story and in spreading the word about potentially lifesaving resources, particularly given the stigma and taboo that she spoke about in her podcast segment.

Her words, and her particular areas of advocacy, reminded me of two other resources I recently came across.

(1) This blog post from the National Alliance on Mental Illness highlighting resources for Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, which is marked every July.

(2) This recent research, covered by PBSNewsHour, on the mental health impacts for black adults of the police killings of unarmed black Americans.

Packnett's story, and resources such as these, contribute to an important conversation about the mutually reinforcing mental health impacts of communal trauma, societal stigma, and cultural taboos, particularly for communities of color.

And, as Packnett says in her video, "If you're still in the midst of this, and you need help and support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text "HOME" to 741741."

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Have a suggestion of a voice or a resource for #MoreStoriesMonday, or want to share your own story? Send me an email!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Annapolis

I'm from the Annapolis area. The house where I grew up, where I lived until I left for college and then returned to during the summer until I graduated and left the country, is 15 minutes from the Capital Gazette headquarters. The Capital is my hometown paper. It's where I got my first ever letter to the editor published. Wendi Winters, one of the staff members killed, wrote the weekly "Teen of the Week" column highlighting good work being done by a local young person, and she covered local high school theatre productions.

I'm so sad for the local reporters who were killed and for their families and friends. I'm so proud of the reporters who kept going and put out a paper today. I'm so angry about the violence and the fear they experienced -- that, because trauma lives in the body, they are still experiencing.

I'm not shocked that this happened in 'my town,' because this is every town in the U.S., and we need to recognize that and respond accordingly.

I don't have anything new to say about mass shootings. I've reflected before on how I make sense of prayer and action in response to news of violence; about the inaccurate perceptions around mental illness and violence; about the unhealthy systems that we ought to be examining and diagnosing in response to violence. To that last post about unhealthy systems at play in violence, you could add something about hostility toward journalists: the killer, who had been brought up on criminal charges for harassing a woman (a history of violence against women being one of the most stable predictors of mass shootings), had sued the paper claiming libel. He felt like them reporting on his criminal behavior towards women was, well, fake news. It wasn't. I wonder how much of his decision to act on his toxic anger toward the paper was empowered by the current climate of suspicion and even urging of violence against journalists. A sitting member of Congress physically assaulted a reporter during his campaign and was still allowed to take his seat.

I keep starting and stopping this piece, writing and re-writing it. I want to say something about my memories of Annapolis. About walking around the Naval Academy with my dad -- he graduated from there in 1963. About pondering going to St. John's. About somehow dropping my wallet off the end of the dock into the cold waters of the head of the Severn River while turning silly cartwheels with friends. About music at Rams Head Tavern. About the Parade of Lights, boats decorated for Christmas. About Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. About how crossing the Bridge with the sun sparkling on the Bay still, after more than a decade, feels like coming home.

I want to say something about all that, but the memories aren't holding still for me right now. Somehow, I couldn't even find a photo of me in Annapolis -- I know there are so many, but I don't know where they are. The images are all jumbled in my head, mixed up with breaking news about violence.

There's a motto bouncing around right now -- I think it's from Everytown for Gun Safety, but maybe it originated elsewhere, I'm not sure. It says, "We don't have to live like this. We don't have to die like this."

Annapolis is everytown. It's got all the same joy and pain and heartbreak and wonder and mediocrity of any other American town. People shouldn't have to live in fear there, or anywhere. People shouldn't have to be shot in their workplaces or their schools or their streets, there, or anywhere.

So I guess I'll end this by pulling a quote from the last time I wrote a blog on the topic of gun violence:
By all means, send thoughts and send prayers. Send prayers by extending real compassion to the people who have been hurt and killed. Pray for the wisdom and the insight to know how to respond responsibly. And think. Put your mind to work. Think systems. Think about the multiple factors that impact a person to lead them to violence. And think carefully and prayerfully -- what the Christian tradition has referred to as "discernment" -- about how you, too, and the communities you inhabit, are impacted by and in turn can impact those systems. Thoughts and prayers? Yes, by all means -- we will need both. Actions? Yes, those too. Putting them all together? That's thinking systems. That's the kind of thing that might just lead us to properly diagnose this problem. And maybe, just maybe, find a cure.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What I've heard, what's needed, and how you can help

The past month and a half has been amazing, and tiring, and inspiring, and hard, and full, and I just wanted to share a few thoughts about it.

I've been on the road a lot recently, talking about my book Christ on the Psych Ward and sharing with faith communities about mental illness, mental health, and spiritual care. By my count I've given 15 talks to a total of well over 400 people in 5 states and the District. I'm beyond grateful for the many people who invited, organized, scheduled, and hosted me.

There have been rich conversations, powerful stories, and tough questions. I have been inspired and heartened to see congregations challenging stigma and breaking the silence around mental illness in the church. I have been saddened and angered by the realities of lack of mental health resources in many communities and the real difficulties congregations, campuses, and chaplaincies have in responding to what feels like overwhelming need. And I have become even more determined to create more spaces for conversations, to share more stories, and to challenge the systems that keep many people silent about their struggles and cut-off from care and community.

Speaking at a packed pub theology in Marietta, OH
I heard from people in rural communities talking about the almost total lack of mental health resources available, including a lack of health coverage, lack of hospital beds and hospital units for people with psychiatric needs, and harsh co-morbid realities of addiction, mental illness, and situational despair.

I heard from people who struggle to destigmatize psychiatric medication because of real experiences and concerns about medication being abusively administered as a means of control, rather than as a means of healing, in settings such as prisons, group homes, and (just recently in the news, and again) in detention centers caging children at the border.

I heard from people working in marginalized communities where mental healthcare continues to be stigmatized in part exactly because of the histories and current realities of these types of abuses.

I heard from people who are tired of chronic homelessness and mass incarceration standing in for a functioning mental health system in this country.

I heard from pastors and church staff who are stretched beyond their training and ability trying to fill in the gaps in a broken mental healthcare system.

I heard from people with their own mental health struggles and diagnoses who struggle every day and who long for the support of their faith community, their friends, and their family -- and family members, friends, and church members who long to offer support but aren't sure where to start.

I heard a lot, and I'm still processing most of it.

Hearing from a student in Greensboro, NC
But there are a few things that have become clear to me as far as what's needed, and what's next for me as I try to respond faithfully to that need. Because it's become increasingly clear to me that this -- these conversations, these needs, these opportunities for faithful engagement -- is, indeed, part of my call, an important piece of my vocational journey.

So here are five things I'm going to work on to address three areas of need I see:

(1) I'm going to keep sharing my story. There's still a huge need to challenge stigma, to break the silence, and to "go first" with my own story in order to create space for others to safely share theirs.

(2) I'm going to start something called #MoreStoriesMonday, which I'll share on this blog, the website, and social media. #MoreStoriesMonday will highlight and share stories from people who are impacted in different ways by mental health struggles and the realities of our broken mental health system. I begin all of my talks by saying that my story is not a universal story, and that in many ways I carry a privileged voice in the conversation about mental health. #MoreStoriesMonday will focus on voices that carry less privilege and less visibility than mine. There's a huge need to listen to the voices of people impacted by mental health challenges whose stories aren't often heard, and his is how I will respond that that need. 


Coming soon!
(3) I'm going to get trained as a Mental Health First Aid instructor. At almost every single place I spoke, I talked about the importance of Mental Health First Aid for congregations and faith communities (really, for everyone, but that's the main setting where I was sharing my story). I want to be able not just to talk about how important the training is, but to offer it for churches, chaplains, campuses, and communities. There's a huge need for basic mental health knowledge and resourcing, and this is how I would like to respond to that need. 

(4) I'm going to get more involved with the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This revival of the 50-year old Poor People's Campaign -- which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was part of spearheading when he was assassinated -- is connecting the dots between the brokenness of our healthcare system and other important moral issues of our day. There's a huge need for us to challenge the systemic brokenness of our mental health system and our healthcare system in general, and this is how I am going to respond to that need. 


Speaking at a Poor People's Campaign Rally last week
(5) I'm going to write. I'm going to write more blog posts, and I'm going to write another book. In fact, I've already started working on it. Much like my first book, it will interweave threads of personal experience, theological reflection, and ministry practice. But rather than focusing only on the personal or interior experience of mental illness and mental health struggle, it will focus on the public conversation around the mental health system and access to care. It will ask the question: what does it look like to think in a more healthy manner -- to think healthier theologically, personally, and practically -- about mental health care? There's a huge need, as we continue to challenge stigma and break the silence, to connect personal stories to the systems that keep people silent and sick, and this is how I am going to respond to that need. 


Tentative 2nd book title, from my most-read blog post

And here's the deal: I need your help!

All three of these things are going to take time and resources. The training to be a Mental Health First Aid instructor runs from $950 to $2,000 depending on the training, not including travel. Volunteering with the Poor People's Campaign is going to mean traveling and giving up some weekends and vacation days. Writing takes a lot of time and energy. And y'all, I still need to pay for my own mental healthcare within this broken system that we've got!

So here are 10 things you can do to support me in these goals:

(1) If you haven't already, obviously buy Christ on the Psych Ward!
(2) Now that you've bought it, review it on Amazon and/or Goodreads.
(3) Recommend the book to a friend -- word of mouth is still the best darn way to spread the word!
(4) Go to your local public library or the library at your college/university and ask them to order a copy of Christ on the Psych Ward for their shelves.
(5) Organize a Christ on the Psych Ward book study, using our free discussion guide -- and I'll be happy to Skype in and speak to your group for one of your sessions.
(6) Like and follow my author page on Facebook, invite a friend to do the same, and like and share posts to spread the word.
(7) Invite me to speak with your church, campus, or organization, and gather the resources to help me with travel and pay my speakers' fee.
(8) Let me know about cool opportunities for speaking and/or sharing the book, like book festivals or conferences that might be interested in my work. You can contact me using this form.
(9) Share the Christ on the Psych Ward website with faith communities who are looking for mental health resources.
(10) Finally -- and perhaps most importantly -- you can join me in my goals by attending a Mental Health First Aid training in your area and/or volunteering with the Poor People's Campaign.

There's a lot of need, and I'm a limited person. But I'm passionated about this topic, and I think there is so much that faith communities can be doing to make our systems, our conversations, and our communities healthier and more whole. I'm grateful for all of you, and the many ways you support this important work. Thank you, and keep the conversation going!