Thursday, May 10, 2018

"How were you able to ask for help?"

Last week, I hit the road with a box full of copies of Christ on the Psych Ward to kick off a summer of talking with people of faith about mental health, mental illness, and spirituality. I did four speaking events in a week, with a total of about 100 people in attendance. I'm feeling immensely grateful for the ability to do this and for the wonderful conversations I had with folks in D.C., Rochester NY, and Scranton PA.

I should probably get the car washed. 

One question I was asked several times by several different people has stuck with me, and I wanted to put down a few quick thoughts about it. After sharing some of my story about finally seeing help for my mental health struggles in 2011, a number of people asked me how I was able to reach out and ask for help when so many people can't bring themselves to do so.

First of all, let me say this: if you have lost someone in your life due to mental illness, as I have, you know that it's an awful, awful thing. And no answer or explanation can make it less awful. So please, know that none of what I will write about here is meant to create shame or guilt around this topic. There's so much we don't know, don't understand, and don't control about suicidal behavior. In writing and talking about it, I hope to push back against shame, stigma, and silence, and help more people get help. But when someone is hurting so badly, it just hurts. And the words I have to offer are limited.

Second, and related, I want to write about this question -- "How were you able to ask for help?" -- in a way that avoids making me into the hero of this story. I wasn't able to ask for help because of some strength or moral superiority that others don't have. I'm a better person than I once was for having asked for help, but it wasn't because I'm a better person that I could ask for help. So please know that.

With that said, there are three things that helped me ask for help, and one thing that made it harder for me to ask for help.

The three things that helped were: people in my life who talked about their mental health struggles with me; people who checked in on me when I was having a difficult time; and access to care.

The thing that made it harder was: toxic constructions of masculinity.

So, let me share just a little bit about each of these.

First, people in my life talked about their mental health struggles with me. This started with my family. My father and mother both put work in to break through the generational pressure of family secrets and to talk to me about the histories of mental illness, addiction, and compulsion in their families. At the time they decided to do this, it probably made me uncomfortable, and I probably didn't know what to do with it. But when I hit a real crisis point in 2011, I had some groundwork laid, some vocabulary, some dim understanding, that mental health struggles existed in my family and that the awful experience I was having might be, not an isolated incident, but a part of a larger whole. That helped me reach out for help.

Second, people checked in on me when I was having a difficult time. Friends noticed that something was up, and they asked about it. I didn't always know what to say to them. Sometimes, I flat out denied anything was going on. But the cumulative impact of people asking if I was OK did make an impact, and it did help me ask for help. That's really important for people to know: even if it seems like you're not getting anywhere by checking in on someone, it helps. I wasn't always ready to respond, but when I eventually did reach out, I was enabled to do so by the support that had already been shown to me.

Third, I had access to care. I wasn't as aware of this at the time as I am now, but I had a level of access to mental health care that is often denied to people in this country. I had a ride to a hospital. I had people around me who not only knew how to get me to the hospital but knew what I needed to tell the ER staff so that I could get the help I needed. I had economic resources and buffers (though even with them, I ended up in massive debt). I had a generally positive view of health care, that hospitals were a thing that were there for me and there to help me. For many people in this country, barriers to care mean barriers to asking for help. If I'm going to encourage people to share their stories, push back against stigma, and ask for help, I also need to be working to change unjust structures and assure that when people do ask for help, they can get it. Otherwise, encouraging people to ask for help isn't helpful; it's even a little bit cruel.

And one of the structures that needs to change in order to ensure better access to care is the toxic way we construct masculinity. I write in my book about seeing my father cry when he came to visit me in the hospital, and how difficult that was for me to witness. Even in a family that had worked hard to talk about mental health and mental illness, I still picked up on the subconscious message that men shouldn't cry. And that we should be careful about how long we hug other men. As I say in the book, it was easier for me to think of God in feminine images than it was for me to see a subversion of traditional masculinity. If we continue to teach boys and young men that crying is bad, that talking about feelings is bad, that violence is the only acceptable way for men to express emotion -- then how are boys and men going to reach out for help?

After I got out of the hospital, I joined a Dialectical Behavior Therapy group. The psychologist who ran the group interviewed me at the beginning of the process, and expressed surprise that I was there:

"I don't usually have men in my groups," she said.

"Oh, that's interesting," I said. "Why is that, do you think?"

"I know why it is," she said. "The men who need these groups usually end up in jail."

I didn't end up in jail. Many people who need help do. But since going into the hospital, I have learned a lot about the way that my gender, and my understanding of my gender, impacts my mental health, and creates barriers for talking about emotions and struggles in an honest way that leads to more health and more wholeness.

Why was I able to ask for help? Ultimately, I don't know. It was an experience of grace; and yet, again, I don't think the difference between me and those who can't or won't or don't ask for help is that I have grace and they don't. There is always a grace, however hidden, available to those who are hurting so badly. I believe that very deeply. But I also believe there are ways for us to be means of grace for each other in a way that leads to more health and wholeness.

So, if we want to be means of grace for each other, if we want to help more people get more help, here's four things to do:

1) Talk honestly about our mental health struggles

2) Check in on the people we are connected with when they seem to be struggling
3) Advocate for just and equitable access to mental health care
4) Teach and model healthier understandings of gender/masculinity 

AND. Our faith communities can be places where we do all four of these things.

I hope that helps.

--

If you or someone you know is in a crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. You can find out more about the Lifeline at their website and on the website of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The Lifeline now also has an online chat option. I keep an updated list of mental health resources, particularly for people of faith, on the Christ on the Psych Ward website. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Stephon Clark, guns, and feelings that aren't facts

On Sunday, Sacramento police officers killed Stephon Clark in his own backyard. He was unarmed. They shot him 20 times. Afterwards, police said they "felt he had a weapon" and that they "feared for their safety." No explanation -- and certainly no blog post -- will make this ok. Not for Mr. Clark. Not for his family and friends. Not for his children. Not for our society. My heart is breaking, again, today.

When I was in the hospital during the period of mental health crisis I write about in my book, there was an adage that several people shared with me:

"Feelings aren't facts."



The idea was that, while the feelings I was having -- feelings of isolation, of self-hatred, of suicidal ideation, of devastation, of fear -- felt very real to me, they weren't necessarily accurate representations of the reality around me.

This was a really difficult thing to process, and still is. At times, it makes me doubt myself, doubt my own sense of things, my own instincts.

It's also a statement that bears some helpful critique. Your feelings aren't facts, but the fact that you are feeling them matters, should not be harmfully dismissed, and probably has some good data for you about what's going on internally and in your environment.

Still, there is important truth in the statement. "Feelings aren't facts." My feelings weren't factual. I wasn't really alone. I wasn't really a horrible human being. The world wouldn't really have been better off without me.

And as long as those feelings were leading me to be a danger to myself -- which, to be clear, they indeed were -- the right thing for me to do was to be in a safe place, under the care of people who could help keep me safe, while I (with lots of help) got my brain back to a place where it could accurately perceive reality.

Feelings aren't always facts. And when our feelings make us dangerous -- dangerous in the sense of "prone to causing actual physical harmd" -- to ourselves and others, then we need to learn to recognize that, and be somewhere safe.

And definitely not have access to a gun.

Even, and especially, a state-sanctioned gun.

Sacramento police say they "felt" Stephon Clark had a gun. They say they "feared for their safety" from a man with a cell phone in his own backyard.

But feelings aren't facts. That's what I learned on the psych ward.

And if you don't know how to manage your feelings, to the extent that they lead you to kill somebody, you need to be somewhere where you can't hurt anybody. And you definitely shouldn't have a gun.

The "feeling" that Stephon Clark had a gun was wrong. It was inaccurate. The feeling of fear for their safety was not an accurate reflection of reality. Their feelings were not facts.

Of course, going along with the story that the police "felt" Stephon was a threat or had a gun conceals more than it reveals. Stephon was a black man. The "feeling" that someone is a threat to you needs to be interrogated. Is this "feeling" actually racism? Bias? The way that implicit bias, not to mention overt and systemic racism, affect the behavior of armed police officers toward African Americans in this country continues to be revealed, in ugly and violent ways, over and over again. And it will keep doing so until we do something, actually a lot of things, about it.

Here's one thing we could do: hold police officers to the same damn standard I was held to when I was in the psych ward.

Feelings aren't facts. And if your feelings are going to get someone, yourself or someone else, killed, it's time for you to be under care, in a place where harm can be minimized.

And certainly not carrying a gun around.

Even -- and perhaps, because of the power and the sense of authority it gives you, especially -- if you're carrying that gun on behalf of the state.

Feelings aren't facts. Not for me. Not for Sacramento police officers. Feelings aren't facts. But the fact of the matter is, unmanaged and unhandled, feelings can kill.

So: will we decide to hold police accountable for the potentially deadly results of their "feelings"? It's the standard I, someone with a mental illness, will be held to for the rest of my lives. Shouldn't it be a minimum standard for police officers, as well?

And if you're going to tell me my feelings aren't facts when I'm suffering, you better not be giving cops a pass for killing an unarmed man because they "felt" he had a gun. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Institutions, Care, and Better Conversations

Do we need more mental healthcare institutions?

A 1900s photo of St. Elizabeths Hospital in DC
This question has entered the national discussion after the horrific shooting in Parkland, Florida. I've written in far-too-great length (at least for a blog) about the problem with associating mass violence with mental illness -- here's Part I and Part II of "Mental Illness Isn't Violence (But Our Systems Sure Are Sick)." But the discussion around institutionalization is close to my heart -- my book, which will be released next month, largely revolves around my own experiences with psychiatric hospitalization -- and I thought it would be worth sharing a few quick points about it:

-- Deinstitutionalization began in the 60s and 70s as a response to civil rights and mental health advocates who spoke out against institutional abuse and neglect. The idea was to close big institutions, which were horrendous and often served not so much as health care centers as prisons for folks who didn't "fit," and replace them with community mental health centers. These centers would be smaller, more localized, and more integrated into communities, allowing for people with mental illnesses to remain connected to other sources of support such as families, faith communities, friends, and other community services.

-- During the 80s, community mental health centers fell victim to tax cuts and lack of funding. Rather than transitioning from big, awful institutions to smaller, community-based centers, we went from institutions to not much of anything at all. Many advocates trace the modern realities of homelessness in this country to this period.

-- Currently, there is a massive shortage of psychiatric beds in this country. According to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, in 2010 there were only about 14 beds available for every 100,000 people in this country.

An image from the Treatment Advocacy Center's "A Bed Instead" campaign

-- This shortage, among other factors, means that hospital emergency rooms, prisons, and homelessness have effectively taken the place of psychiatric hospitalization for many people experiencing serious mental illness.

-- Like everything else in this country, this reality is further impacted by racial and socioeconomic factors. Who gets a bed, and who ends up in prison, is affected by intersecting and oppressive systems.

-- We need more psychiatric beds, but not because mental illness is predictive of violence. As I've written about previously, those with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of violence in this country, and if we want to have conversations around the mental health implications of mass violence, we need to take a systems approach that considers factors such as toxic masculinity, white supremacy, cultures of violence, and access to guns.

-- We need more and better mental health care facilities, but this administration's rhetoric on the matter is stigmatizing, reactionary, and harmful. It ought to go without saying, but of course it doesn't these days, that saying we need more institutions to deal with "sickos" demonizes and scapegoats people with mental illnesses.

-- We need more and better care options for folks with mental illness because folks with mental illness are people who deserve care, compassion, and health. 

There is more to say on the matter from a policy perspective, but these are at least a few framing points for the conversation, centering it where it should be centered -- actual, effective, compassionate care -- rather than as a reactionary conversation that equates mental illness with violent crimes.

Let me wrap this up with a few words about my own experience with psychiatric hospitalization/institutionalization.

If you want more than a few words, I know where you can find them.
First of all, my experience was a privileged one. I had access to quality care, and to people who knew how to connect me to quality care, which are not realities that can be taken for granted by most people in the U.S. I also had a level of awareness of my own need for help, both because of conversations within my family about mental illness and also because of the nature of my illness. My racial identity, socioeconomic background, and other factors allowed me a level of access that is often denied to people in this country who are impacted by multiple oppressions. And still, in spite of all of this, psychiatric hospitalization felt scary, and isolating, and out of my control. I am very grateful for the hospitals that kept me safe and gave me space to stabilize and start on the path toward healing; and also, conversations around psychiatric hospitalization -- and even more so long-term institutionalization -- should be approached with a great deal of care, compassion, and nuance.

On a second, and related, note: we can't talk about "bringing institutions back" without acknowledging the fact that the prison system is standing in for an actual mental care system in this country. When I was discharged from a longer-term stay at a hospital in Connecticut, I returned to the DC area and began working with a therapy group using an approach called Dialectical Behavior Therapy. When I first met with the psychologist who ran the group, she shared with me that it was relatively rare for her to have men in her groups.

"Why is that?," I asked.

"Because men with your diagnoses usually end up in prison first," she said.

So if we're going to talk about the past abuses of institutions, we also need to be talking about the current abuses of our nation's de facto biggest mental health care institution -- the prison system -- not to mention the complete lack of institutional support faced by those experiencing homelessness. (I wrote more about this latter reality recently).

#EndTheStigma
Finally, my experience of hospitalization looked nothing like the popular perception of such a thing, which in my own pre-hospitalization experience was a mishmash of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-esque images of straitjackets and dictatorial nursing staff. You can read a whole heck of a lot more about my experience in my book (did I mention it's coming out next month?). Suffice to say I think it's really important that we de-stigmatize psychiatric hospitalization. It saved my life. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the history of institutional abuse and neglect and be very careful that our approach to mental healthcare institutions is focused on compassionate and effective care. Reactionary, stigmatizing rhetoric will not produce this.


Psychiatric hospitalization saved my life. It deserves to be talked about. We do need more, better mental health care institutions. And the importance of these institutions deserves a conversation focused on compassion, care, and effective treatment, not on blaming and scapegoating people with mental illnesses.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Telling hard stories

The journal entry that became a book

My book comes out next month. And I think I should be excited. And I am, a little. But mainly I'm just scared.

Scratch that. Not scared. Terrified. I sort of want to hide in the bedroom and not come out of it for the next few months. Which is terribly ironic since the book I've written is about having a major breakdown and having to spend a few months being in places that were safe and a bit hidden away from the rest of the world.

And that, as they so ineloquently say, is the thing. I've written a book, and somehow gotten it published, which is a miraculous and amazing fact which most days I can't even comprehend I have the privilege of saying.

I've written a book, but it's about a tremendously difficult and, to be honest, embarrassing time in my life, a time that felt like failure after failure. I pray this book will communicate something about healing, something about wholeness, something about hope, but I'm not 100% sure it will do that, while I am 100% sure that it talks about a lot of pain and hurt and self-destruction, and also I'm 100% sure that if the book is anything like this blog, which it surely must be, that it will involve a whole lot of run-on sentences and weak diction that would make my high school English teachers mad at me.

(Should I find my high school English teachers and tell them I've written a book? Should I add that to my "now it's time to try to sell this book" to-do list? Oh gosh.)

I'm currently wracked with boring self-doubt, an experience I'm sure anyone who's ever written a book (or for that matter a note to someone they like) has had. Writing in order to share writing with others is an experience of excruciating vulnerability. This is true even if one isn't also haunted by the added layer of painfully specific doubt that accompanies a book about mental illness and suicidal ideation and self-harm.

Should I have shared those particular personal details?

Should I have included more explicit and specific warnings about approaching content that has the potential to be triggering for someone with a similar experience?

Will my book help anyone?

Will my book do more harm than good?

Should I warn people off from reading it, exactly the people I had in mind helping when I decided to write it?

Should I have written this thing at all?

It's enough to land a guy in the psych ward. Oh, wait...

I doubt I'll ever have answers to these questions, really. Of course, I doubt all manner of things, and on some rare days, while I doubt, I also hope and love and trust. John Wesley once wrote about the "Almost Christian," a term he meant pejoratively or at least critically. I am beginning to embrace the phrase as an accurate self-description. Most days. Most days.

But answering these questions, not to mention the shallower, sillier questions -- Will this thing sell? Will anyone really want to read it? Will it succeed? Will I be allowed to write another one? Why would I ever want to write another one? When do I get to write another one? -- isn't why I wrote. It's not why I decided to tell, in whatever fragmented, limited way I can, this piece of my story.

It's a hard story to tell, and I don't really now how not to tell it, and I don't know that I ever have known.

Telling our stories honestly and well is hard. I don't know if I'm good at it, and I do know that even if I am good at it there are only rare days where I'll feel good at it. Those days I'll accept as a gift, but I can't just sit around and wait for them to come. A person can dissolve in that waiting.

And so I will tell, and share, and doubt, and hope. I can't tell you to do the same thing. Perhaps your story is too jagged right now for you to touch. Perhaps it is a burden that you need to set down for awhile before picking it up in this difficult manner. Perhaps there are too many risks. Perhaps you are just too tired.

If I understand anything, it's being just too tired.

And perhaps when you read this, or when you read pieces of my story, you will say to yourself, "Easy for him to say, protected as he is by privilege and by ease." And you will be right, in many, many ways.

It is scary, and weird, and vulnerable, to tell our hard stories.

Somehow, somehow -- reaching out for connection, hoping to offer healing, or at least companionship, the bare whisper of "you are not alone -- we tell them anyway.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

There (but) for the grace of God

This winter, I've once again been volunteering with Georgetown's Hypothermia Outreach Team (HOT), a joint effort between the university's Center for Social Justice and a local non-profit called Georgetown Ministry Center (GMC). On nights when the city activates its hypothermia alert, we walk a route around the neighborhood, talking to folks experiencing homelessness. We check in on people; we encourage them to seek shelter and connect them with transportation if they're interested; we have some snacks and water, some socks and hats, some hand-warmers to give out. If they haven't heard of GMC, we give them info about the services offered there. At least once or twice every winter, we end up calling an ambulance for someone suffering from the first stages of hypothermia.

In a way, it's not much -- preventing hypothermia deaths is hardly a long-term solution to homelessness. The hope is always that the consistent outreach provided by GMC and HOT will connect people who otherwise exist largely outside of the city's network of services to housing and longer-term solutions. On many nights, that doesn't happen. But we keep going out, because on some nights, it does.

---

There are all sorts of reasons why I started volunteering with HOT, but there's one in particular that I've been thinking about more and more lately as I layer up to head out into another cold night. (I hate being cold. This is not a natural choice for me. It takes me a lot of layers.)


Most, maybe all, of the folks we talk to on a given night have some sort of mental illness. These aren't folks who have simply lost jobs or been priced out of affordable housing. (Though there is a lot of that in DC, too.) These are folks with multiple challenges, experiencing chronic homelessness and major mental health challenges. Of course, there's a chicken-and-egg question here: does serious mental illness lead to homelessness, or does the trauma of living outside lead to serious mental illness? Both, of course.

So as we talk to folks under bridges, huddled in sleeping bags in storefronts and alcoves, even tent-camping in Washington Circle, I am constantly aware of my own mental illness. Our experiences are so different in so many ways, and yet on paper, I share a diagnosis, a disorder, with many of them. I am much more like the homeless "them" than most of the outreach team "us" realize. These folks are, in some sense, "my people." The fact that I am "doing outreach" while they are the ones "being outreached to" is pure luck. A couple of ticks in my genetic code, a couple of facts about family life -- there's not much that inherently separates their lives from mine. It's a thin line between our lives, and yet a massive chasm of privilege and circumstance.

Living in the same neighborhood, we live in entirely different worlds.


---

There is a phrase which perhaps you have heard. It's sometimes attributed to an English Reformer named John Bradford, who apparently muttered it to himself while witnessing the execution of a group of prisoners. (Thanks to Wikipedia for that tidbit.)

The phrase is: "There but for the grace of God go I."

The expression is supposed to communicate that my own fortune comes by no merit of my own, that I have not earned my life. It has been given to me as a gift.

But there's something wrong with that expression, at least in my book, at least in this instance.

It is not grace that separates my life from the kind gentleman sleeping under the bridge, who always thanks us for the visit but ever-so-politely declines our offer of shelter. It is not grace that separates me from the couple sleeping in the tent near GWU, who says they came to D.C. from Houston after the floods. It is not grace that separates me from the angry man who tells us, in no uncertain terms, to leave him the f**k alone tonight (which we do).

If I believe anything, I believe all of these people are as much recipients of God's grace as I am.

Look to luck, or to privilege, or to systemic injustice, or to the contingencies of life on this "not-yet" side of heaven's reign if you seek an explanation for these circumstances. But do not blame grace for this.

So instead -- as I have walked around Georgetown in the freezing temperatures, talking to the people who are willing to talk to our teams, checking in even on the folks who tell us, night after night, to go away, just in case, just in case -- I have been repeating a different phrase to myself. A slight variation, but more accurate, I think.

"Here, for the grace of God, we go."

We go here, because this is where the grace of God lives. Under this bridge, on this park bench, in this alcove. God lives here, in these homes we call home-less. "Foxes have dens," Jesus once said, "and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head."

It is not the grace of God which separates me from the experience of those sleeping outside. It is the grace of God which connects me to them.

And so I pray, as we walk and talk. Pray for this grace to be felt. To be seen and heard. To somehow become more concrete than the concrete on which some folks sleep even on cold, cold nights.

There go I. For, not but, the grace of God.


---

You can find out more about Hypothermia Outreach Team by clicking here, or learn how to support Georgetown Ministry Center here. And if you're interested in hearing more about my journey with mental illness, check out my upcoming book, Christ on the Psych Ward.

Below, I've pasted some resources for the DC/MD/VA area if you encounter someone in need of shelter. If you're outside of the DMV, and want to share resources you know of in your area, shoot me an email
Resources:
THE DISTRICT:
Hypothermia Hotline: 202-399-7093
D.C.'s Hypothermia Shelter Hotline provides transportation to emergency shelters, and distributes items such as blankets, gloves and jackets.
For more, see https://dhs.dc.gov/service/hypo-hyperthermia-watch
MARYLAND:
Montgomery County:
Community Crisis Center: 240-777-4000
Shelter Services: 240-777-3289
Non-Emergency Police: 301-279-8000
For more, see http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/hhs-program/program.aspx…
Prince George's County:
Homeless hotline: 888-731-0999
Non-Emergency Police: 301-352-1200
For more, https://www.princegeorgescountymd.gov/1672/Emergency-Shelter
VIRGINIA:
Alexandria:
Carpenter's Shelter: 703-548-7500
Non-Emergency Police: 703-746-4444
For more, https://www.alexandriava.gov/…/economicsupport/default.aspx…
Arlington County:
Arlington Street People's Assistance Network (A-SPAN): 703-228-7803
Non-Emergency Police: 703-558-2222
Department of Health and Human Services: 703-228-1350
For more, https://publicassistance.arlingtonva.us/shelters/
Fairfax County:
Office to Prevent and End Homelessness: 703-324-9492
Non-Emergency Police: 703-691-2131
For more, https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/…/hypothermia-prevention-prog…
Falls Church:
Winter Homeless Shelter (217 Gordon Road): 703-854-1400
Non-Emergency Police: 703-248-5053
For more, http://www.fallschurchva.gov/686/Shelters

Sunday, January 7, 2018

In the Beginning (a sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany)

I was honored to be invited to preach at my own congregation, Cleveland Park Congregational UCC in Washington, DC.

This is a sermon I shared for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany (or, in secular terms, the first Sunday of the new year). 

The texts were Genesis 1:1-4 and Mark 1:1-11.

Both text and audio versions are below; apologies for a couple of awkward audio patches in the recording, I had a few technical glitches.


---

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“You better not never tell nobody but God."[1]
The first line of a story matters.
The beginning lines of a story, its first words or images, aren't just a tool to draw the audience in, to encourage further reading or listening or watching. No, the beginning of a story sets the stage. It gives us a hint, a window, into how the story will be told. The beginning of a story invites us in, but it also gives us a guide to how we are to continue encountering the story that is about to be told.
This next statement will probably reveal my nerdy proclivities, but if you want a great example of how the first words of a story affect our understanding of the kind of story we are about to experience, look no further than the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” – followed by strident trumpets – is a whole lot like “once upon a time.” It sets us up for exactly what Star Wars is – a fairy tale in space, a mythological, epic struggle between good and evil, hero and villain. “Space: the final frontier” is the introduction to a story about exploration, about testing human limits, about the complexities of utopia – it’s about a Trek, not a War. The uninitiated may find it easy to mix up the two – after all, they’re about spaceships going at faster-than-light speeds and aliens with lasers, right? – but two different beginnings make for two very different types of stories.
This morning we heard the first lines of the book of Genesis; and while this creation story arose out of the context of the Ancient Near East, its English translation contains one of the most famous “first lines” of Western literature:. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” as the old King James Version had it; or, in the more recent New Revised Standard Version, “in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” This way of starting the tale tells us something about how the rest of the narrative is going to go. “In the beginning, God” – the story starts with God. There’s no explanation for God, no violent origin story for how God became God, a characteristic which differentiates this particular Ancient Near Eastern creation story from many of its contemporaries. God just is, and God is creating – that’s how this story starts. As the story will soon make clear, humans will indeed play a big role, but the story starts with God, and it’s God and God’s activity that sets the stage for all that is to come. In fact, in this first account of creation in the book of Genesis, while humans are declared to be “very good,” it is the Sabbath – God’s day of rest – that is the crown and finishing point of creation, not humanity. The story, we gather quickly, even when it is being told by and to humans, begins and ends with God.
The gospel of Mark, whose opening lines we heard read today, is also concerned with beginnings. Just like Genesis, Mark’s Gospel starts at the very beginning, literally with the word, “Beginning”: “The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then we get a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, and John the Baptizer doing what Baptizers do down at the Jordan River. No nativity stories for Mark – no angels or shepherds or magi. No exposition. We just jump right in, in medias res. And this direct, plunge-right-in approach does indeed characterize the rest of Mark’s narrative. Mark’s Jesus doesn’t spend a whole lot of time teaching or dialoguing. He’s more of an action-adventure Jesus. One of Mark’s favorite words is the Greek euthys, often translated as “immediately.” The word appears more than 40 times in Mark’s gospel, at least six times in the first chapter alone. Jesus seems to do just about everything “immediately.” Mark’s gospel doesn’t have time to wait around for exposition – it’s got stuff to do.
What’s more, the story claims to be the beginning of the “good news,” or “gospel.” When Mark, or whoever actually wrote Mark’s Gospel, began their writing, there was no such thing as a “genre” of gospel. Mark’s writing precedes Matthew, Luke, and John, the books we’ve come to associate with the term “gospels.” For the author of Mark, “gospel” – the Greek is euangelion – was a commonly used word referring to an imperial announcement of military victory or the coronation of a new emperor. It’s a triumphant declaration. To begin the story with such a pronouncement of victory, and to plunge us directly into the action, conjures up certain expectations and assumptions about what kind of story this is going to be, about who this Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, is going to be.
And then Mark’s gospel proceeds, almost immediately, to subvert and undermine all those expectations and assumptions. First of all, even with the Gospel of Mark’s breakneck narrative, its “immediate” pacing, the good news about Jesus doesn’t start with Jesus. It starts with a quotation from Isaiah, a prophet whose preaching occurred centuries before Jesus. And that quotation from Isaiah serves to highlight, not Jesus’ ministry at first, but rather that of John the Baptist, described in terms designed to connect him to those Hebrew prophets of old. As scholar Elizabeth Struthers Malbon writes, “Prepared for the story of Jesus, we hear first a voice from Scripture that is then actualized in the voice of John the baptizer, “crying out in the wilderness” (1:3). Scripture prepares a way for John, who prepares a way for Jesus.”[2]
Then, when Jesus does appear on the scene, it’s mainly so that things can happen to him. He is the passive recipient of the action for most of the beginning of this good news about him. He gets baptized, a Spirit descends on him, God calls him beloved, and then he is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted, where angels care for him. It isn’t until John the Baptist is arrested that Jesus actually does anything in a story which is supposedly a triumphal declaration about Jesus. Theologian William Placher, in his book Narratives of a Vulnerable God, writes that “This will not be a story, we as readers gather, of easy triumphs or of the usual sort of monarch.”[3] In fact, this “good news” about Jesus reads like a whole lot of bad news. There is suffering, and confusion, and those closest to Jesus can’t seem to get their act together. Jesus is betrayed and executed, and it is only one of his executioners who finally seems to understand who he is. And then, rather infamously, the gospel abruptly ends with an empty tomb and no real explanations. In the original ending of Mark’s gospel, there are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. No redemption of the failed disciples. No ascension of Christ into glory. This “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” doesn’t have a very good ending – so much so that later Christians actually went back and added longer conclusions to Mark’s gospel to try to improve on its abrupt, even jagged, finish.
            (Kind of like fan fiction.)
But maybe the gospel is supposed to end abruptly, or, to put it another way, maybe it’s not meant to end at all. Maybe the not-so-famous first line of Mark, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” doesn’t describe just the beginning of the story but the story itself. This is the beginning of a story that isn’t finished – and we, the audience members, are invited into the ongoing story. We hear the beginning of the good news, and we are led to wonder what our role is in this good news that has not been neatly tied up yet.
It turns out that the “immediately, immediately, immediately” of Mark’s story, the Jesus-on-the-move narrative, is not really about what Jesus gets done, what Jesus finishes, at all. Jesus doesn’t actually achieve much in Mark’s gospel. Instead, the story is about who Jesus is. And who Jesus is, according to these first few verses, isn’t based on what Jesus does – Jesus doesn’t do much of anything – but rather on how God perceives Jesus. “You are my child, the Beloved One,” says God. “With you I am well pleased.” Right at the beginning of the good news about Jesus, we learn that this story isn’t about what Jesus gets done, but about who Jesus is. Which makes us wonder who we are. Which turns our ears to listen to the voice of God, saying to us as to Jesus: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
The texts we heard this morning are associated with baptism. Perhaps, like me, you were baptized as an infant, prior to any cognitive memory of such an event; or perhaps not. But however you were or weren’t baptized, by participating in a community of faith, you are invited and incorporated into something that vastly precedes your cognitive memory. Our story of faith, of doubt, of life, doesn’t start with us. It starts with something that comes before us. Like this congregation celebrating its 100th year. And the countless families of faith that came before that. And Jesus before that, and John the Baptist before him, and the prophet Isaiah before him, and before all of them – “In the beginning, God.” It doesn’t start with us. It certainly doesn’t start with what we’re able to get done. It didn’t even start like that for Jesus, who was baptized and declared a beloved child of God before he did anything, before he healed a single sick person or preached a single sermon or invited a single disciple to follow him. The story started before that.
I remember this truth – that the story of faith and the creative word of God vastly precedes us and our beliefs and our stories – every time I hear the term “preexisting condition” bandied about in our public discourse about healthcare in this country. You see in 2011 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a series of hospitalizations. With that diagnosis came help, and treatment, but it also carried with it a new label – “preexisting condition.” That label has at times made it impossible for me to receive coverage for the treatment I need to stay healthy and whole. And I am of the opinion that the belief that an illness or disability can be considered a “preexisting condition” is not only a societal injustice but is, in fact, heresy. Our scriptural narratives tell us, at least those of us who identify as Christian, what conditions can be considered preexisting. God’s Spirit, descending from heaven and hovering over the waters, declaring God’s love for God’s children. God, graciously creating, speaking the world into existence. Love is preexisting. Grace is preexisting. God is preexisting. That’s where the story begins. Not with our actions or inactions, not with illness or sickness or brokenness, but with:
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.”
“In the beginning, the good news.”
“You are my beloved child.”
And so, as we begin a new year, let this be a reminder to us. That grace is a preexisting
condition. That the beginning began before us. That it continues beyond us even as it includes us. So when we feel like we aren’t getting enough done, or that our story feels jagged and unfinished – the story goes on, like it was created to do. And that, I think, is very good news, indeed.




[1] These are the first lines of, respectively, A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens; Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen; and The Color Purple, by Alice Walker.
[2] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “Gospel of Mark,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd edition, edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 481.
[3] William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 12.