Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lent: Not giving up on joy

I missed a post, mainly because this weekend has been packed. I've visited folks in the hospital and in a retirement community, played a gig, lead worship, and preached. It's been busy and a bit stressful. But it has been full of meaning, and full of joy. The following is the sermon I preached at the Crossroads worship service at St. Luke's Mission Center this evening. The texts were Psalm 30 and Philippians 3:7-14. This Lent, I'm not giving up on joy:

In order for what I’m going to say about joy and happiness to make much sense, I think I’m going to need to tell you some of my story. This is a story that many of you know a part of. Some of you might even know all of it. I don’t relish telling this story again, really, but I feel safe doing so, and here’s why: once, during the ordeal that I’m going to describe, I had the chance to visit Crossroads and look at your prayer wall. My name was on the wall, and had been circled multiple times. This community—whether you as an individual realized it or not—was praying for me, week after week. I can never express my appreciation for that enough.
On with the story. It begins about a year and a half ago. I had just finished my first year of seminary, a highly successful year marked by good grades and new relationships. I was beginning a rather intensive summer class schedule, and I thought I was doing quite well. Reflecting back on things, however, I realize that I should have recognized the signs that everything was not alright. I had recently ended a relationship in a messy and ungraceful manner. My beloved roommates of two years were planning on leaving DC and I was having absolutely no luck at finding new living arrangements. I was in two intensive summer courses. Looking back, I realize that something had to give.
It was a Sunday night, and some friends had come to look at my house and see if they wanted to live there. It hadn’t gone well. I had a few drinks and then, without thinking, did something I hadn’t done since high school. I grabbed a knife from the kitchen, went downstairs to my room, locked myself in, and started cutting my arm.
If you’re not already familiar with self-harm, it’s a remarkably common phenomenon. People hurt themselves for a variety of reasons. For some people it’s a form of self-punishment; it certainly has that effect for me. It’s also a means of communication. It says something like, “This is how broken and hurting I am on the inside. I don’t know how to communicate this to you. So I’m going to write it out on my skin.” So for me, I was hurting myself because I wasn’t sure how to tell people how badly I was hurting. But I was also ashamed that I was doing it. So I went through a whole week, in the middle of summer, covering my arms up for fear that someone would see the cuts but on the same time hoping, hoping that someone would see and know that I was in pain.
Here is how my week went: I didn’t sleep, much. I woke up early, feeling awful. I went running in the midsummer heat. I played guitar, loudly, sang hoarsely. I went to my Hebrew class. Did well in class. I went home with two classmates to study. I came home. I drank. I cut myself. I tried to go to sleep.
This went on, like I said, for a week. And finally it was Friday night, and I was staring at a bottle of pills on my bedside table, daring myself to take them. Some months ago I had saved in my phone the number of a suicide hotline, on some understanding of past experience and some premonition of future need. So I called the number, and they talked to me for awhile, and then they asked me if I had a friend who I could call, and it just so happened that my friend Lindsey had called me earlier and I had ignored her, so I called her. She talked me through the night. When I was tired enough to go to sleep she told me to call her in the morning. I called her when I woke up, told her that bottle of pills was still looking tempting. So she got me to call Mark Schaefer, the United Methodist chaplain at American University. And Mark took me to Sibley Hospital. I joked with him the whole time he drove me there. And that was the beginning of a six month journey, in and out of three hospitals, on the way to a new understanding of myself and my mental health.
Any description of that week, and of the six months that followed, is necessarily going to come across as much more neat and meaningful than the experience actually was. In actuality it was a broken, fragmented, mess. But I do have to say that I was so incredibly blessed and lucky, because I didn’t do it on my own. I had so much support and so much love during those six months, including from members of this community, even when I tried to push that support away. Not everyone who goes through mental health challenges has such support. Once, in the hospital at Sibley, the social workers asked us to do an activity in which we named 5 people who supported us. Out of the group of 5 of us, I was the only one who could name 5 people. One person couldn’t name any. There is such loneliness in this world. We have to remember that.
I was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Bipolar is also called manic-depressive. It can mean a lot of different things but for me it means that my moods can fluctuate really wildly, from very high to extremely low. For me bipolar also means that I struggle with suicidal thoughts and tendencies. I would venture to say that a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about killing myself. And there’s that constant temptation to hurt myself, something I haven’t done now in more than 200 days. Thanks be to God.
I’m hardly alone in all of this. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older, or one in four adults, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.”[i] That includes 14.8 million American adults living with major depressive disorder, 5.7 million with bipolar disorder, and 2.4 million with some form of schizophrenia. Every 17 minutes in the U.S., somebody kills themselves. Suicide is the number 3 cause of death for Americans under the age of twenty-one, and it is number two for college students.[ii]
I am telling you all of this just to say this: I struggle with the concept of happiness. It’s not that I don’t experience happiness. I do, and I’m so grateful for that. But I know that the illness of my mind and my emotions can whisk away that experience of happiness in a heartbeat. And I was in the hospital with too many people for whom happiness is a foreign experience. So for the gospel to make any sense to me, it has to be able to speak into situations where happiness is a stranger.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians, part of which we heard read earlier, fascinates me for this reason. Many people consider this to be the most joyful of Paul’s letters. And yet the letter is written while Paul is in prison. His mission is in real danger. And while celebrating the ministry of the church in Philippi, Paul goes out of his way to describe the suffering that he has undergone to carry the gospel message. “Whatever gains I had,” he says, “I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things.” It doesn’t appear as if the gospel message has brought much happiness into Paul’s life. And yet this is the same Paul who, a few verses later, will say to his Philippian sisters and brothers, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.”
How is this possible? How is it that for Paul, joy and suffering, struggle and meaning are all wrapped up in each other? And what does this mean for those of us for whom happiness is a struggle?
The pesky thing about the gospel message is that it doesn’t offer us easy answers. We worship a God who suffers and dies on a Roman cross. We worship a resurrected Messiah who still has scars on his hands. For Paul there’s no separating the two: “I want to know Christ,” he says, “and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.” For Paul, following Christ does not necessarily remove a person from suffering. In fact, it might do the exact opposite.
This is a rather shocking message to those of us who have been raised on a diet of feel-good Christianity. “Follow Christ and suffer” doesn’t seem like very good news. But what I want to argue tonight is that, for people suffering, for people struggling to feel happy, the fact that the gospel emerges from places of suffering is good news indeed.
See, when I'm suffering, when I'm struggling to feel happy, it’s easy to feel like there is something deficient about me. That I am lacking. “Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?” I ask. “Why can’t I be normal?”
And from there, it’s just a short step to believing that since I am not happy and normal, I am not really experiencing God. That I am somehow outside of the boundless love of God. Because surely God wants me to be happy, right? And if God wants me to be happy, and I’m not, then I must be doing something wrong, right? And now not only am I unhappy, but I feel guilty for it to boot. And the long spiral downwards continues.
But then there’s Paul. Sitting, chained, alone, in a Roman prison. Writing about suffering. And holding open the possibility of joy.
Because for Paul, joy is a possibility even when happiness seems like a distant dream. Because, I would argue, joy is a possibility even when we don’t feel particularly joyful. Don’t get me wrong. Our feelings, our emotions, are important. But for folks who are suffering from mental illness, feelings can be enemies, out to trip you up. Even out to kill you.
So I think joy is something that has to transcend feeling. Joy draws you out of yourself, out of the habitual cycles that trip you up, that entangle you. Joy calls you into relationship with others, relationship that holds up and holds together. Joy provides meaning. For Paul, joy comes through offering the gospel to people, the good news of a God who loves us so much that God is willing to put God’s whole self on the line for us.
Joy has to do with calling. We are all called. We are called into community. We are called to be ministers, to each other and to a broken world. And we are called to be ministers, not because we are happy and not in order to be happy, but exactly because in our places of hurt we can recognize and stand in solidarity with all that is hurting in the world.
In the psalm that we read together, Psalm 30, joy is something that comes in the morning after a night of weeping. It is something we are clothed in to replace our clothes of mourning. But a different psalmist—or is it the same one—says in Psalm 31, “my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing.” For the psalmists, for Paul, and I would argue for God, joy and sorrow are not at a far remove from each other. There is joy in a life lived with God, yes. But it might often be joy in the midst of suffering.
Joy dances furiously, even if off beat. Joy sings even when her voice is breaking. Joy isn’t afraid to shed tears.
The author Andrew Solomon, in his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, writes about the difference between joy and happiness. Himself suffering from clinical depression, he has this to say: “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this, is vital, even when sad. I may wake up sometime next year without my mind again; it is not likely to stick around all the time. Meanwhile, however, I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery. Almost every day I feel momentary flashes of hopelessness and wonder every time whether I am slipping. For a petrifying instant here and there, a lightning-quick flash, I want a car to run me over and I have to grit my teeth to stay on the sidewalk until the light turns green; or I imagine how easily I might cut my wrists; or I taste hungrily the metal tip of a gun in my mouth; or I picture going to sleep and never waking up again. I hate those feelings, but I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reason for living. I cannot find it in me to regret entirely the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?”
Sisters and brothers. Friends. I began by telling you some, just some, of my story. I want to tell you that I am in recovery now. I am healing. And I do experience happiness, and am so grateful for that. I am certainly not trying to tell you that happiness is a bad thing or that it is not possible. But for me, and I imagine for all of us, there are some days that seem like a mortal struggle. In this Christian life, we will not always be happy. But we will always be called into something beyond ourselves, something good, something vital. In those moments when we struggle with happiness, we are not far removed from God. In those moments, there can still be meaning, still be calling, still be life. In those moments, we are invited to stand next to each other, even in the midst of suffering, even in the midst of unhappiness, and to proclaim, loudly, fiercely, boldly: “Yes. Yes. God is here.” Is that not a rare joy?

[ii] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 248.

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