Monday, November 3, 2014

"The Noonday Demon" -- a sermon about mental illness

This is a sermon I preached a few weeks ago at one of our Thursday night healing services in the Kay Spiritual Life Center. It's based on Psalm 91, and it focuses on mental illness. I've included the text, but the audio clip below actually extends beyond my written manuscript -- I got a bit more personal at the end when during the actual service. 


I miss Robin Williams.
To be honest, I usually get sort of annoyed about the media coverage surrounding celebrity deaths. With so much tragedy and heartbreak in the world, it always seems a bit unfair that we get so focused on the death of someone just because they’ve been in movies; and I always wonder how the families and friends of famous folks feel about all of the attention paid to them during such a personal, painful time.
But Robin Williams. I grew up with Robin Williams. He was the genie in Aladdin; he was Mrs. Doubtfire; he was O captain, my captain. Mr. Williams made a lot, a lot, a lot of people laugh; and he made quite a few of us cry, too. And I have to admit that when I heard that he had died, and that it was likely he had killed himself, I had the same reaction that a lot of other folks had: “How could someone who made so many people happy be in so much pain?”
Of course, speculations flew, and there was a lot of talk about Mr. Williams’ past struggles with drug use, health problems, and depression.
It’s important for me to say, before I go on, that we don’t actually know whether Mr. Williams had a diagnosis of depression or of bipolar disorder, and honestly maybe it’s none of our business. But for folks who do have such a diagnosis, Williams’ self-description of his emotional swings, the intensity of his highs and his lows, sound very, very familiar. How can someone who made so many people happy, who seemed to be such a bright light, be in so much pain?
As it turns out, it’s awfully, awfully common. There is a type of anguish, a type of suffering that lurks in the wings of some of our personal theaters, immune to lights or to applause. There is a type of pain that is able to live on in the daylight.
It’s often very, very difficult for people to talk about a pain like that. The church has, unfortunately, played no small role in the creation of the kind of societal stigma that makes mental health challenges particularly hard for people to share about. The journalist Andrew Solomon writes, quite bluntly, that “The rise of Christianity was highly disadvantageous to depressives.”[i] The church often equated mental illness with demon possession and thus with sin, moral failing, or a lack of faith. In the Middle Ages, theologians and church authorities used the expression, “the noonday demon,” to refer to the phenomenon we might call depression. Their solution? Manual labor, isolation, or intensified ascetic practice.[ii]
The phrase, “noonday demon,” comes from the Latin translation of the Psalm we heard read tonight. In the Common English translation we heard the Psalmist say: “Don’t be afraid of terrors at night, arrows that fly in daylight, or sickness that prowls in the dark, destruction that ravages at noontime.” In the Latin Vulgate translation, that last line is “daemonio meridiano.” According to Andrew Solomon, church authors seized on the phrase to describe: “the thing that you can see clearly in the brightest part of the day but that nonetheless comes to wrench your soul away from God.”[iii]
Solomon’s book on the topic of depression is called The Noonday Demon. He explains why:
I have taken the phrase as the title of this book because it describes so exactly what one experiences in depression. The image serves to conjure the terrible feeling of invasion that attends the depressive’s plight. There is something brazen about depression. Most demons – most forms of anguish – rely on the cover of night; to seem them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition. You can know all the why and the wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance.[iv]

I wonder if any of this sounds familiar to you, either from firsthand experience or from the accounts of someone close to your heart. A recent annual survey by the American College Health Association reported that 30% of college students have felt “’so depressed that it was difficult to function’ at some time over the past year.”[v] The Mayo Clinic now has a section on its website dedicated specifically to college depression.[vi] The number of students seeking counseling for "severe" psychological problems jumped from 16 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2012; the percentage of students who report suicidal thoughts has risen along with it.[vii] And according to Emory University, 1 in 10 college students have made a plan for suicide during their undergrad years. Emory reports that there are about 1,000 suicides on college campuses across the country in a given year.[viii] College students – students such as you – are, it seems, no strangers to the noonday demon.
          And if that’s the case – if the noonday demon, the sort of personal darkness that seems immune to even the brightest of lights, stalks its way across our campus – then we, as a community of faith, need some sort of way to confront it.
          As I said before, the way that the church has tended to deal with mental illness and anguish in the past has been to ignore or to stigmatize it, to associate it with demon possession or laziness or personal sin. So part of what’s required is for us to roll back that stigma, to bring what has been hidden in the shadows out into the light. Just having a conversation about mental illness, just naming it as something that can be talked about, helps.
          But if the thing we’re talking about is capable of doing its damage, even in the light, then more is needed. What do we do? What do we say, when people we know – the people on our hallways or in our classrooms or in our worship services – seem to be drowning?
           Early on in the first three gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Jesus is baptized by John. And we are told that the skies open up and that the voice of God declares Jesus to be beloved of God. Can you imagine that kind of assurance – a voice from heaven saying that you are loved, that you are valued and cared for and accepted?
          And in each and every one of those stories, Jesus immediately finds himself in a wilderness, hungry, alone, and haunted by a demon who is immune to daylight.
          Jesus, we are told, was tempted by the devil. And in Matthew and Luke, where we are given some details about this temptation, the devil appears quoting the Psalm that we heard tonight, Psalm 91. Matthew’s gospel, for examples, tells us: “The devil brought Jesus into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written –and he quotes the psalm – I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.” Jesus’ tempter says, “Have faith, Jesus. If you’re so high, so beloved – if you’re here, literally at such a high point, at the pinnacle of this holy place, go ahead and throw yourself down.”
          I don’t think that the devil makes people kill themselves. I don’t think mental illness is caused by literal demon possession. But it sure does sound familiar to me – a voice that can come to you even when you’ve just been told how loved you are, that can make you feel lonely and isolated, make you doubt your mission and your passion and your identity. It might not have horns and a tail and a pitchfork, but that voice is very real.
          What is notable about the story, I think, when it comes to how we relate to those in our lives who are wrestling with the noonday demon, is that the devil shows up to test Jesus’ faith, and what Jesus says is in response is, “Don’t put God to the test.” A test, as it turns out, is not what people need when they’re feeling alone in wilderness places. They don’t need a test of faith. They don’t need to be told that if they just tried harder or just prayed harder or just thought more positively that they would feel better. They don’t need judgment. They need acceptance. Friendship. Companionship.
           John Swinton is a theologian who also works as a community health chaplain in Scotland. He writes of the importance of friendship in reclaiming the personhood of those struggling with mental illness: “Unlike many agents with whom people with mental health problems may come into contact, the task of the Christlike friend is not to do anything for them, but rather to be someone for them—someone who understands and accepts them as a person; someone who is with and for them in the way that God is also with and for them; someone who reveals the nature of God and the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ in a form that is tangible, accessible, and deeply powerful.”[ix]
          Ultimately, what the psalm we read tonight witnesses to is a God who is with and for us. And so we, too, are called to be with and to be for those who are suffering. Perhaps someone you know, or perhaps you, are feeling the pressure of always having to be on, always having to be up, when they or you are really feeling the sort of anguish that seems immune to even the brightest light. And there are many, many resources on this campus and in the wider community that can help. But it starts with a simple commitment, for each of us as individuals and for this community, to reach out to those who are grappling with the noonday demon. To be with them. To be for them. To be friends.

[i] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 292.
[ii] Ibid., 292-293.
[iii] Ibid., 293.
[iv] Ibid.  
[ix] John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People With Mental Health Problems (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 143.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

"More Than 'Whatever'" -- a sermon about making decisions in a complex world.

This is a sermon I preached last night at Kay Spiritual Life Center for the American University United Methodist-Protestant Community. It was sparked by a student showing me a beer commercial that they had to watch for one of their classes. The scripture texts are John 2:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33. The sermon is called "More Than 'Whatever'"; and if you want to join in a bit of social media fun, you can do what I asked the students to do this week: reflect on one way that you're going to be a good steward of God's beautiful creation, and then share it with us by posting it with the hashtag #morethanwhatever.



“More Than Whatever”

David Hosey
AU Methodist-Protestant Community
October 19, 2014

I. “Up For Whatever”
This summer, the Anheuser-Busch company – producers of Bud Light, a beverage which I understand purports to be beer – launched an ad campaign called “Up For Whatever.” The company somehow managed to get permission to take over the entire town of Crested Butte, Colorado; re-dubbed the town “Whatever, USA”; and then held a competition in which contestants sought to prove that they were “up-for-whatever”-enough to win a spot in the town for a weekend-long party
The party featured – and I quote – “so much spontaneous never-thought-I’d-be-doing this awesomeness that it’s hard to believe that we actually pulled it off…body bowling, roller disco, Bud Light, tiny cars, tiny horses, big celebrities, Bud Light, dancing, karaoke, Bud Light, whatever that is, this guy, this girl, O my, wow look at that, Bud Lite, then put it on the internet for everyone to see.”[i]
The ads plugged Bud Light as “the perfect beer for whatever happened” and encouraged the use of the hashtag #upforwhatever.   
Take a quick look at the ads on YouTube, and you’ll quickly realize that the target demographic of this campaign is, well, y’all – “21” to 30 year olds, young people, exciting people, attractive people, the type of people who are UP FOR WHATEVER! Woooo! Constant party! One online recap of the weekend claimed breathlessly that “Life will never be the same after #WhateverUSA”![ii] You hear that? Transformative! Drink our beer! Life Changing! Drink more beer! Be fun and spontaneous and extraordinary! Drink our beer!
            It was actually Monica who pointed this ad out to me after she had to watch it in one of her classes. She wrote me a rather scathing review of the ad, which she’s kindly given me permission to quote from. Monica says:
“Apparently Bud Light thinks what I want is a non-stop party of thrills, surprises, jocularity, one hit wonders, laser shows, confetti cannons, driving bass lines, and adrenaline rushes. And to be honest, yea, parts of the advertisement are really cool. But if I don't want that, then Bud Light is telling me that I should. This should be my goal. Come to where the pretty people are, come to where the beer flows freely, come to where we jump from thrill to thrill -- barely leaving time to breathe. I watched that video and wondered who thought of these events, who put it together, how much it must have cost, and how totally exhausted I would've been if I were there. How out of place I would've felt. Not pretty, not "whatever" enough.”[iii]
This is what advertisers think of our generation. We want a non-stop party fueled by cheap beer.
And the folks of Anheuser-Busch aren’t the only ones who think that the ideal of young adulthood is a constant party. Take a glance at almost any pop culture depiction of college life, and you’ll see keg stands, spring break orgies, and random hookups galore. Animal House, Old School, 22 Jump Street…heck, even the Disney Pixar animated film Monsters University features a dueling fraternity story line, red solo cups, and at least one beer pong reference.

II. Purity Culture vs. Party Culture
            Of course, not everybody’s buying it. There’s an alternative cultural trend that is also on the rise across the country. Rather than “up for whatever,” its slogan would probably be more like the old DARE education motto, “Just Say No!” It’s based on a culture of abstinence – particularly abstinence from sex and alcohol. It tends to be particularly strong in Christian subcultures on campus. It’s a culture based on purity and on clear rules: there are right things and wrong things, and what it means to be a good person is to do the right things and not do the wrong things.
            These two dueling ideas – “up for whatever” and “just say no” – are, I think, based on two different worldviews, in particular two different ways of understanding ethical decision-making in a world awash with options. When faced with the many difficult choices that mark the transition into adulthood, these two worldviews present two clashing methods of discernment. One, as declared by the backing-soundtrack of the Bud Light ads, believes that “the world is our playground,”[iv] and thus the right choice is the fun and exciting choice. As long as nobody gets hurt -- and maybe even then! – you should do the thing that makes you feel good. The other sees the world as filled with hostile threats, and thus the right choice is the safe choice. As long as purity is upheld, as long as you follow the rules and avoid the bad things that you need to avoid, then you are ok. It’s a fight, you see: a sort of cosmic struggle between purity culture and party culture.

III. An Old Story
            It probably won’t surprise you that I don’t find either of these modes of decision-making particularly helpful. I think they both tend to contribute to the objectification of people, to rampant individualism, and to unhealthy and even abusive views about sex and the body.
They are, however, attractive in their simplicity. In a world of complexity, where “adulthood” sometimes seems to be synonymous with confusion and anxiety, party culture and purity culture each offer an easy matrix for discernment. One says, “whatever goes”; the other gives you clearly defined laws of right and wrong.
            The thing is, though, that the world has always been a rather complex place, and there have always been people willing to offer simple solutions. Tonight we heard an excerpt from a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church in the city of Corinth. Corinth was a big city, a city with a lot going on, and the church in Corinth reflected that cultural complexity. And, not surprisingly, this complexity was starting to cause a lot of conflict. The church in Corinth has actually written to Paul to get him to weigh in on some of the arguments that are happening in the church. They are trying to make decisions, and they are, understandably, looking for some simple solutions to all of the confusing problems that they are facing.
            So 1st Corinthians is Paul’s response to the church. The passage we heard tonight is addressing a particular disagreement that doesn’t cause us many problems in the 21st century – the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. What’s going on here is that the Corinthians, like good followers of Jesus, are eating meals with people who are not part of the Christian community. The problem is that these other people are offering them meat that, in the custom of Corinth, has first been offered to other gods. In fact, the custom of serving meat that has first been sacrificed to the gods of the Roman pantheon is so prevalent in the city that the Corinthian Christians are worried that even buying meat in the market means investing in pagan religion.
            Vegetarianism, I should note, was not so in vogue in 1st century Corinth.
So there are two factions in the Corinthian community. One is summarized by Paul in the opening lines of tonight’s reading: “Everything is permitted.” This faction, it seems, argues that since they have become part of the Christian community, the laws and customs that used to bind them no longer have any power. In Christ, they have freedom to do as they please. The other faction, however, sees eating meat sacrificed to other gods as idolatry, and thus absolutely impermissible for the church. Sound a bit familiar? “Nobody’s getting hurt here! Whatever goes!” says one side. “Just say no!” says the other.
It’s an old story
            And Paul says, as Paul often does: “Nope.”

IV. Complex Choices in a Complex World
            Or, more accurately, Paul says, “Well, yes and no. You’re both a bit right and you’re both a bit wrong. Yes, everything is permitted – the ‘free in Christ group’ is right, in a way. You can buy groceries or eat food offered to you at someone’s house without being consumed with anxiety about it. But on the other hand, not everything is beneficial. Not everything is good. When you make a choice about what you eat, consider the effect it will have on those around you, both fellow believers and also those outside of the Christian community. Consider how your choices are a witness to the beliefs and the values that you hold. Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, you should do it all for God’s glory.”
            So, wait. Dammit Paul, should I eat the meat or not?
            Paul doesn’t offer a simple solution to the complexities of being a follower of Jesus in what, for him, was the contemporary world. Instead, he offers a series of guiding values: “Participate with gratitude. Do all for the glory of God. Don’t offend people with different views, but also don’t offend your fellow church members. Don’t look out for your own advantage, but rather pay attention to what builds up and to what grows the love and the faithfulness of the community.”
            And the thing about these guidelines is that they aren’t simple. What glorifies God? What’s the line between not offending people but also speaking up when things are harmful? What types of activities build up a community? These are questions that are just as difficult, if not more difficult, than the initial question of what is ok for believers to eat. Discerning what is right is a tough task. In a complex world, decision making is bound to be complex.

V. Waiters, Stewards, and a Whole Lot of Wine
            So where does that leave us? How, given the startling array of daily decisions we face, do we discern what is right and what is wrong? As was true for the community of faith in 1st century Corinth, there isn’t one simple answer to the question. But I will propose one answer, one way of thinking about the choices we make as people trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century. It’s called stewardship.
            Now stewardship is one of those “church words,” one of those bits of insider language that only pastors use. Stewardship is often synonymous with “church fundraising.” We usually use the term during budget season. Many churches have “stewardship series” that are basically the equivalent of NPR pledge drives.
            But while the concept of stewardship certainly does have something to do with money, it’s actually much deeper than that. A “steward” is someone who is entrusted with somebody else’s property. They are to responsibly and faithfully manage resources or possessions that belong to someone else.
Take, for example, tonight’s gospel passage.
The scene is a wedding.
It’s quite a party.
And the wine has just run out.
This is a problem.
In a hospitality culture, such as Jewish culture in 1st century Palestine, such a shortage would be a cause of shame for the host family. Jesus’ mom, who apparently knows a little bit about how to throw a party, has picked up on this problem, and, using her mom superpowers, gets Jesus to do something about it without ever actually asking him directly.
            Perhaps what Jesus’ mom meant was, “Jesus, go buy more booze.” After all, up to this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has displayed no miraculous powers. But Jesus, who is all about destabilizing and disrupting expectations, does something spectacular instead. He gets the servants to fill six stone jars up with an absurd amount of water and turns it all into really fantastic wine.
            About 180 gallons of really fantastic wine.
            So what does this have to do with stewardship? Well, what Jesus tells the servants to do with all that wine is to take it to “the headwaiter.” In other translations, that word is “chief steward.” It’s the person who is in charge of the wedding logistics so that the party can go off without a hitch.[v] The chief steward is like the stage manager for the wedding – entrusted with the details by the host family.
            So in sending the wine to the chief steward, Jesus does something really important. If the host family found out that the wine had run out, thus casting them in a shameful light, who do you think they’re going to take it out on? The chief steward should have managed the wine stores properly! Jesus not only saves the family from disgrace; he also probably saves the chief steward’s job.
            The story has some obvious commentary on the clash between party culture and purity culture. On the one hand, Jesus – at the urging of his mother – does his first miraculous action: he keeps the party going. What’s more, the storyteller informs us that the water-turned-to-wine was intended for a purification ritual, thus seeming to represent a rather literal victory for party-over-purity.
            But on the other hand, Jesus and Mom aren’t just keeping the party going for the sake of the party. They’re saving the family and the steward from shame. What’s more, the story concludes by telling us that this is “the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs.” In John’s gospel, “sign” doesn’t just mean miracle; it means something that points to the glory of God. Specifically, Jesus’ signs point to the cross and to the resurrection, to the way that Christ stands in solidarity with the suffering of humanity and declares the decisive victory of life over death; love over hate; peace over violence. The party at Cana, in other words, doesn’t exist just for itself. There is a depth dimension to it, one that extends beyond itself to a world and a cosmos marked by redemptive grace. It’s neither purity culture or party culture: it’s something different.
Something more.

VI. More Than Whatever
            “The earth and everything that is in it belong to God,” Paul writes to the Corinthian church, quoting a psalm. Our faith is in the God who created a good world and filled it with good things. A God who creates abundantly and even extravagantly, not just more wine but excellent wine, so that all can have what is needed for a full life. As people of faith, we do not think of ourselves as owners; rather, we have been entrusted as stewards, as faithful managers, of God’s creation. And if God has created plenty for all, then situations of deprivation and scarcity in the world are situations of human injustice, examples of poor stewardship of the world’s resources. Like the chief steward at the Cana party, we ought to be very concerned if it doesn’t seem like there is enough of the good stuff to go around.
            So when it comes to making decisions, decisions about our bodies or our money or our time, about what we do or do not eat or drink or watch or do, that’s the lens we look through. Not purity culture or party culture, but rather: a culture of justice. A culture of mercy. A culture of abundant grace.
            And the truth is that there will be times we disagree about how to create that culture. There will be times when it just doesn’t seem clear what the right choice is. Stewardship isn’t simple. It requires a lot of us – a discerning mind, a generous heart, and a level of humility about what we do and do not know.
Friends, we’ve been entrusted with God’s party. And if we mess up? If the choices we make end up causing hurt or inequity or deprivation?
If, God forbid, the wine runs out?
Well, that’s when Jesus gets to work, offering the steward grace instead of shame.
That’s the kind of abundant life we’ve been offered – a party where the best wine is served and we get to help out. That, to me, is a way more compelling view of the world than one that says we just have to say no, to avoid the party at all costs. But it is also a much more compelling view of the world than one that says that the right choice is whatever makes me feel good.
So this week, I want to ask all of us to consider: What does it look like to live a life that is about way more than, “Whatever.”

[i] “Out of Breath – Whatever USA” Bud Light advertisement, 12 Sept 2014, available at:
[ii] “Whatever, USA Weekend” Bud Light advertisement, 16 Sept 2014, available at:
[iii] Monica Nehls, personal correspondence, 15 Oct 2014.
[iv] Vice featuring Mike Taylor, “World Is Our Playground,” Ultra Records LLC, May 2014.
[v] Gail R. O’Day, notes on “The Gospel According to John,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 1911.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The church, the psych ward, and me: a #BlessedAreTheCrazy synchroblog-ama-watzit

So, this is something I've never done before -- a 'synchroblog' -- when a group of folks generate conversation by posting blogs around a common topic. This coming week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and it's also the release of a new book called Blessed Are The Crazy by a UCC clergyperson named Sarah Lund.

So, folks are synchroblogging about mental illness in order to challenge silence and stigma around this important topic.

Of course, if you're someone who reads my blog on occasion, you've probably heard me talk about mental illness before. Like a lot. So I guess what I wanted to say to those who might never have been on this site before is just to offer kind of a short little blurb about my journey with mental illness and the church:

I was diagnosed with a mental illness three years ago (wow, that's hard to believe), after a really awful breakdown and quite a bit of time in a variety of psychiatric health facilities. I had to drop out of my seminary program for a year, and it was a really awful time. I recently rediscovered some of my journals from that time period. There were a lot of f-bombs. It wasn't pretty.

But what I really want to share with any new reader here is that people--including a lot, a lot, a lot of church people--really showed up for me during that time. There are probably more profound ways to say this. But pastors, lay people, one of the deans and several of the professors at my seminary, friends, family -- just a whole lot of people -- were supportive, visited with me, listened to me, sat silently with me, offered help but not stupid faux-advice, and were just generally amazing and beautiful and Christ-like for me.

The thing is that it was still a truly terrible time. I hated everything, myself in particular, and it felt like it was never going to get better. And with mental illness, there is always the possibility that it will get bad again. Healing is not really a linear, predictable, inevitable sort of process.

But a lot of people loved me and prayed for me and supported me, and I have a diagnosis and a treatment plan of medication and therapy, and I'm back in seminary, and working in a ministry I love, and I'm engaged to be married to a wonderful person who encouraged me to write this blog, and I have a very strong support system, and I am very, very grateful.

There's more to the story than that, and I don't want to offer some sort of facile "it just gets better," 'cuz this mental illness shit sucks. But I just want to say to you, if you are reading this, and if you or someone you love is suffering: there is help, and there are people who will be with you in this. And though the church has definitely been the source of a lot of the stigma and mistreatment that people with mental illnesses have faced over the years, a different way of being church isn't only possible, it's already happening, in more places than you might realize. We really can do this.

So that's the really simple version. I'll just share this last thing, a re-post of something I wrote in the hospital more than three years ago now. If you're suffering, please know that there are people who will bear along with you through it all. Hang in there, ok?:

from July 2011:

Hebrews 1:3 says that “[Jesus] is the reflection of God’s glory, and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things–bears along all things–by his powerful word.”

Christ bears along. These words are giving me some comfort. The Human One who is the imprint among us of God’s very being is the same One who bears all things with us, who sustains us and holds us in being. 

Christ is on the psych ward, bearing along. Suffering along. Sustaining the woman who can’t sleep can’t sleep can’t sleep. Bearing along the scared young person with the addiction who wants to stop hating herself, wants to stop being disgusted with herself. Suffering with all those who feel they break relationship, hurt people, want to hurt themselves. 

This Jesus knows a thing or two about broken relationships, about people hurting, about a body tearing itself apart. “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Heb 2:18). 

So here is Christ on the psych ward, just like Christ at the checkpoint or the food line or the refugee camp–bearing along, sustaining, holding together the jagged bits that cut, that bleed, to hold onto.

“I’m not going to lie to you. I feel really awkward, but I’m glad I’m here,” said one visitor. “I might be a mess, but I’ll be there,” said another. “Solidarity is salvation,” said a third. Here are people who, whether they know it or not, are bearers of the Christ who bears along all things, sustains all things. The one who sits with, the one who listens, who bears up, who holds your hand or your arm when you thought all it could hold was the knife of self-injury–they merge, somehow, mysteriously, sacramentally, into the One who ultimately holds us together at the most broken place of all. 

Life. Death. Resurrection. 

Christ is here on the psych ward as surely as in any book or any church. “What matters is you getting better,” the social workers say. “What matters is your healing.” But they also say, “Some of the best insights come from each other,” or, “does anyone else in the group resonate with what _____ just said?” 

The chorus responds. “I feel so fragile.” “I just wish I could sleep.” “I’m embarrassed, ashamed.” 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, be gracious to us. We are your broken ones.


Check out all the other entries from the synchroblog event!

Sarah Griffith Lund - Stronger Together -
Glenn Hager - When Mental Illness Strikes Home -
Cara Strickland - Making Peace With My Mental Illness -
Jeremy Myers - A True Foot Washing Service -
David Hosey - The church, the psych ward, and me: a #BlessedAreTheCrazy synchroblog-ama-watzit -
Ona Marie - Mental Illness, Family, and Church: A Synchroblog -
Susan Herman - 3 Self Care Rituals for Managing Tough Transitions -
Joan Peacock - “Alice in Wonderland”, a Bipolar BookGroup Discussion Guide -
Justin Steckbauer - Mental Illness, Awareness, and Jesus -
Kathy Escobar - Mental Illness: 3 Sets of 3 Things -
Leah Sophia - Synchroblog: Mental Illness/Health Awareness -
Josh Morgan - Peace Between Spirituality and Mental Health -
Sarah Renfro - #BlessedAreTheCrazy -
Steve Hayes - Blessed are the crazy: Mental illness and the Christian faith -
Mindi Welton-Mitchell - Breaking the Silence: Disability, Mental Illness and the Church -
Michelle Torigian - A Life of Baby Steps -

Monday, September 22, 2014


I stepped into the elevator in my apartment building. There was a woman there already, staring off into space.

I pressed the button for my floor. She didn't look at me.

It was only when I got out on my floor that I realized: she hadn't pushed any buttons.

I wonder where she was going.

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Remembering Forward" (A sermon on memory and hope)

Here is the sermon I preached at the American University Methodist Community's healing service on the night of Thursday, September 11. The sermon is based on texts from the final book of the Christian scriptures: Revelation 21:1-6 and Revelation 22:1-5

For Methodist Heritage Week each year, the students set up a big tent on the quad to share some good ol' Methodist hospitality with the campus. So, Wesley style, this is an open air sermon, complete with a lovely cricket soundtrack. You also get to hear a live-action version of our commitment to "Welcome All."

You can listen to the audio (crickets and all) here: 

Text, sans crickets, is below.


"Remembering Forward"

This past summer I had a wonderful opportunity to live and work in Hawaii. It’s a beautiful place, as you might imagine, though filled with some interesting contradictions. It turns out that there is a lot of pain even in paradise. Case in point: one of the places I visited during my time there was the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. The memorial sits on the surface of the water directly above the sunken hulk of one of the massive battleships destroyed when the Japanese Air Force struck Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It’s a haunting memorial – you can just see the underwater outline of the massive naval vessel, with oil still leaking out of it more than 70 years later.
            The memorial contains a hall with the names of all 1,177 crewmembers who died that day in 1941. And in that hall, there is an open-space sculpture called the Tree of Life. According to Daniel Martinez, the chief historian of the site, the Tree of Life “is a universal symbol. It’s a renewal, it’s a rebirth. You can find it in all cultures, [and the architect] wanted to make sure he could adapt something to the memorial that had no ownership, so that people could come to the memorial and hopefully, by seeing the symbol and understanding that symbol, they could remember a time of war in a time of peace.”[i]
            The Tree of Life is, indeed, a widely venerated symbol. For Christians, both the first book and the last book of the Bible contain the image of the Tree of Life. It’s prominent in as varied worldviews as Norse mythology and Darwinian evolutionary theory. Apparently the Rastafarians refer to their unique sacrament as the leaves of the Tree of Life.
            I’m talking about pot there, just in case you missed it.
            The point being, there is a universalism to the symbolism of the memorial sculpture. To have the Tree of Life as the framing motif of the names of all of those deceased sailors was a powerful decision by the architect. And as you might imagine, it was somewhat controversial. When it was built in the 60s, it was criticized as “beatnik art.”[ii] Perhaps people felt like it was too soon to send a message of peace and restoration in a place memorializing destruction and war. Perhaps they wanted something more nationalistic.
            See, there are a lot of ways to remember tragedy. That’s an easy concept to see here in Washington, DC. The World War II memorial focuses on the glorious war effort of Greatest Generation. The Vietnam Memorial is a stark reminder of the losses of that war, and individuals come to read the names and to leave small mementos to their friends, creating a second living memorial on the foundation of the first. The two memorials create a marked contrast, perhaps inadvertently symbolizing the spectrum of this country’s feelings about war.
            How do we remember?
It’s an appropriate question for today, when many of us in this country are tuned in to the communal memory of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. I realized, as I was preparing for this sermon, that many of you were pretty young when the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon here in DC, and a field in Pennsylvania. Yet like the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “day that will live in infamy,” September 11 has become a marker date for the U.S., a day on which people remember where they were when they heard the news.
            I remember that day very clearly, or at least certain details of that day. I grew up in suburban Maryland, and the Pentagon felt awfully, awfully close. The clear, blue sky was empty of planes for the first time I could ever remember. School was let out, and I hunkered down at a friend’s house and watched the news until we couldn’t take it anymore.
            September 11 is a marker date for me personally. I would go on to tackle a bachelor’s degree in international studies in large part to make sense of the events of that day. I started to learn more and more about the long history of Western entanglement in the Middle East and central Asia. That long, violent history continues today, as we have been reminded recently by events in Iraq and Syria. That long, violent history eventually led me to live in the Middle East as part of the global ministries of the United Methodist Church. So yes. I remember September 11, 2001.
Of course, I just happen to be a U.S. American. In Chile, September 11 marks the day in 1973 when a military junta led by Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government, leading to a military dictatorship and the deaths of thousands of Chileans. And other people in other nations have their own marker dates. In fact, much of the difficulty in establishing a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis comes from very different interpretations of the events of May 15, 1948.
            So while I’m sensitive to the particular importance for this date in the U.S.American memory, what I am talking about tonight is not solely the importance of one date, but about the importance of memory. How do we remember? In particular, how do we remember tragedy and trauma?
            As I’ve said, there are a lot of different ways to memorialize communal events. But tonight I want to touch on a certain quality of the way that followers of Jesus remember. Simply but paradoxically put, I think that Christians are called to remember forward rather than backwards.
            To get at what I mean by that rather odd statement, I’d like us to consider the scripture that we heard tonight. We heard verses from the last two chapters of the book of Revelation. This is the achingly beautiful, utopian vision of “the new heaven and the new earth” that God will establish, a world in which “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” and God will wipe every tear from every eye. In the words of one song, “not in some heaven light years away,” but rather here, on earth, will be a new community, a city in which there is no hunger or thirst.[iii] And there, in the center of the city, is that universal symbol, the “tree of life.” Scripture tells us that “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
            It’s a beautiful passage, full of hope.
            But it comes at the end of a book best known for bizarre and terrifying visions and horror movie levels of violence. It’s written in the context of the violence and persecution of the Roman Empire. It’s graphic, and raw, and often gory.  
            The Book of Revelation is a literature of trauma. Scholars debate whether the community out of which this particular witness comes was undergoing some sort of violent persecution or were just expecting it to happen soon, but either way their communal experience was one of tragedy and trauma. This is not writing that emerges out of a place of safety, or comfort, or privilege. This is the poetry of pain.
            And yet, incredibly, the view by which the community of Revelation understands its trauma has a horizon of hope. The experience of tragedy and of violence is not understood as the end of the story. Because the true reality of the world is something beyond the tragic events of the *right now.*
            Christian memory, oddly enough, begins with remembering the future. This is not to say that we don’t memorialize those events that have wounded us, either in our communal life or in our personal lives. Nor is it to say that we must jump immediately to some superficial forgiveness, nor that we are never allowed to be angry or hurt. No. The writer of Revelation makes plenty of space for the community to express its pain, even its rage and its desire for revenge.
            But that is not the end of the community’s story. Not for those with a hope in Christ. Because the light of the new heaven and the new earth, the light of Christ, shines back through all of our experiences and all of our memories, illuminating the dark places, creating the conditions for  renewal, rebirth, and interconnection. Our faith affects our memory, leading us always *away* from hatred and violence, and *toward* a new life of restoration and rebirth and interconnection.
            Is it possible to remember forward? Can we—even as we look back, even as we share our own stories of hurt or of tragedy—see our lives in the light of the new creation made possible by God – the God who wants to heal *all* nations?
            It’s an important question, not only because this is a day of remembering, but also because memory is so central for people of faith.
In a little bit, we’ll share in communion together. And we’ll listen to Jesus’ words, on the night before his death, when he tells us to share food and drink together in remembrance of him. The Greek word for remembrance doesn’t just mean to think about the past. It means to participate in the past, to re-enact it. To make it part of our present lives.  
            My fiancĂ©e, Leigh, asked me a little while ago what I thought communion must have been like the first time the disciples shared it after the crucifixion. How the memory of that awful night must have felt so close. How they were remembering, not hypothetically, but really re-enacting a time of trauma and pain. Leigh told me that she imagines communion must have been a bit like a wake, those closest to Jesus gathered to raise their glasses in a toast to their friend. That there were stories, and songs, and also quite a bit of weeping.
            And in that same communion liturgy, the one about remembering a traumatic night, we’ll remember forward, to a time when “Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.” We’re re-enacting the past, but we’re also enacting the future. And as we do so, we participate in a central act of our faith, one that forms us for a life of service and of love. We are participating in a story that vastly precedes us, made possible by a hopeful future that is breaking in to the present.
            So whatever it is that occupies your memory tonight, whether it’s the events of 13 years ago or the events of your past week, I invite you to also remember forward. To remember that our lives as people of faith are directed toward a horizon of hope. Toward a new heaven and a new hope. Toward a new, universal tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of all people.
            May it be so. Amen.

[i] William Cole, “Redesign offers room for contemplation,” Honolulu Star Advertiser, 5 Dec 2010, available online:
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Marty Haugen, “Gather Us In,” 1982, in The Faith We Sing 2236