Monday, December 22, 2014

Impossible Advent -- the impossibility of blogging

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts.

I have been entirely delinquent in my commitment to blogging during Advent, and honestly I'm not feeling particularly bad about it.

As it turns out, finals week followed by a week of traveling, visiting with family, and getting to see the beautiful farm where Leigh and I will get married in September, hasn't left me with much time for tapping away at a computer, and I am quite content with this fact.

Maybe this will read as a somewhat thin justification, but nevertheless I think there is some truth in it: it seems to me that one of the main lessons of Advent, and all of the metaphors that tend to associate themselves with this season, is that the effort and striving and production of humans is not, in an ultimate sense, the main event. This is a season in which we talk about waiting, about birth, about the dawning of the sun after a long night. All things that, while they might require our alertness, or our care, or our intention, are not really about us, but rather about important things happening in us or through us or around us.

So I'm deciding not to be too concerned that I haven't produced much content here over the past week and a half or so. Advent isn't really about my content, anyway. Not about what I write or make or do. Certainly not about what I blog.

Advent isn't about our flurry of activity and frenzied preparation for five church services on one night (which I am blessedly spared by working with a campus ministry).

Advent isn't about me, or about us.

Which is good news, indeed.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Impossible Advent -- "Tomorrow's Child" by Rubem Alves

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts.

Finals week means not much energy for blogging, but I did want to share this beautiful poem that I stumbled across while madly skimming a book for a final paper:

"Tomorrow's Child" by Rubem Alves

What is hope?
It is a presentiment that imagination
is more real and reality less real than it looks.
It is a hunch that the overwhelming brutality
of facts that oppress and repress us
is not the last word.
It is a suspicion that reality is more complex
than realism wants us to believe
That the frontiers of the possible are not
determined by the limits of the actual;
and that in a miraculous and unexpected way
life is preparing the creative events
which will open the way to freedom and resurrection –
but the two, suffering and hope
must live from each other.
Suffering without hope produces resentment and despair,
But, hope without suffering creates illusions, naivete,
and drunkenness
Let us plant dates
even though we who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
This is the secret discipline.
It is a refusal to let our creative act
be dissolved away by our need for immediate sense experience
and it is a struggled commitment to the future of our grandchildren.
Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints,
the courage to die for the future they envisaged.
They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Impossible Advent: Remembering to breathe in the world of "I Can't Breathe"

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts

Over the past week, I've been telling a lot of people to take deep breaths.

I double-dip stress around finals time. I work with college students, and I'm a seminary student myself, so there's a lot of anxiety happening for most of the people I spend time with on a day-to-day basis. Not to mention that for church folks, Advent--which was supposed to be a season of preparation and contemplation--has turned into a season of over-programming. All of us students sort of need to take care of each other around this time of the year.

The advice rings differently in my own ears this year, though. "Take deep breaths," I say. "You can do this."

"I can't breathe," a voice echoes in my head.

"I can't breathe."

Eric Garner said it 11 times.

I tell people to breathe. To take deep breaths. And I wonder if for millions of people in this country, including friends of mine, colleagues, professors, pastors, those words sound like a sick joke. How do you breathe when the system is designed to choke you? How do you breathe in a world of "I can't breathe"?

My position is one of privilege. And so I write this, not as condescending advice to the righteously angry, but as a reminder to myself: that holding my breath does not help Eric Garner get his back. That holding my breath won't amplify a single voice.

I've got to remember to breathe.

I used to think that I could force my voice out, that if I buckled down and tried harder I'd be a better person, a better activist, a better Christian. I forced that voice out, and before I knew it I was trying so hard that I was gasping for air, holding my breath to try to make it through.

Even in the world of "I can't breathe," I've got to remember to breathe.

Leigh recently posted this article called "The Activist as Contemplative: Resting for Social Change." What with all its talk of burnout and campus ministers, I have a sneaking suspicion it might've been a bit of But it's a powerful reminder, and well worth the read: prayer and rest are not the opposites of action. They are essential to it. They are the fertile ground out of which it grows.

It seems like an odd contradiction, perhaps even like an excuse. But then again, there's an intuitive link between the inner stillness and the outer activity, the deep breath and the loud protest. There's an oft-quoted scripture verse, from Psalm 46, that is often offered as a comfort to people in times of stress: "Be still, and know that I am God." It's a reminder to still the racing of thought and heart and to relax back into the presence of God. But look at the previous verse, and you'll see this: "Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations God has brought on the earth. God makes wars cease to the end of the earth; God breaks the bow and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with fire." Only then, after all the desolation and the breaking and the shattering, does the psalmist declare, "Be still!" There's an exclamation point. A more recent translation says, "That's enough!"

"Take a deep breath" sounds like lame advice. But it's a bit of a gentler way of saying, "That's enough!" "That's enough of the interior monologue of anxiety and insecurity, enough of the feelings of inadequacy! That's enough of the self-hatred! That's enough injustice"

"Be still." "That's enough!"
"Take a deep breath." "Let him breathe!"

Probably the only thing I'm worse at than being an activist is being a contemplative. But in this season, I am remembering: we have to breathe.

For the sake of a world where "I can't breathe" becomes unimaginable:

We have to breathe.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Impossible Advent -- 5,900 miles

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts.

In September 2007, I arrived in Jerusalem to begin three years of service with Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. I worked with the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, learning about the struggle of Palestinian Christians for unity and justice in the face of division and oppression.

During my time in Palestine/Israel, I saw houses bulldozed because the families living in them were Palestinian. I saw Palestinian families dragged from their homes, evicted by the Israeli military police to make room for Israeli settler extremists. I saw grandmothers pushed down by soldiers at checkpoints; saw unarmed children arrested, beaten, and intimidated; saw live ammunition fired into a crowd by Israeli soldiers; saw the evidence of blatant and systemic violence with no accountability for the perpetrators. One Palestinian friend was jailed for months with no trial. His crime? Organizing nonviolence in the West Bank.

I came back to the U.S. angry, angry and determined to work for justice, to change the ways in which the U.S. supports this awful situation with money and bullets and guns. Determined to change the ways that our institutions, including our churches, make money by investing in companies that help make this oppressive situation possible.

It's about 5,900 miles from here to Jerusalem. And for the past few months, ever since I saw photos like this ...

... not from the West Bank but from Missouri, the thought that has been rolling around in my head has been:

"Why the hell did I travel 5,900 miles when I could have just hopped in a car for a day?"

Palestinians were even tweeting protesters in Ferguson -- where, as it turned out, the police response was modeled after Israeli military policy -- to give them tips about dealing with tear gas.

5,900 miles away. 

And now, another black man killed by the police...and another...and another.  

5,900 miles.

I'm so grateful for my experiences in Jerusalem and surrounds. I learned so much, not only about the situation and the work of Sabeel and its allies, but about myself, about structures of power, about building community. 

But then, 5,900 miles later, and here are the images of militarization.  Here is the disproportionate violence with no accountability. Here are the immoral investments in racist infrastructure.

As usual, much more articulate people than me are writing about this. Rev. Amy Butler, my preaching professor and now the senior pastor at the Riverside Church in New York, traveled to Ferguson to learn from the protesters and wrote about her experiences -- even as protests in her new home of New York erupted over the Eric Garner (non)verdict -- here. My seminary colleague and friend, AhnnaLise Stevens-Jennings, wrote about her own experiences as an African-American woman engaged in conversations about race here. At American University, students organized a protest and faculty and staff stood in solidarity with them. And the most powerful theological response I saw yesterday was from Rev. Jeff Hood:
"I keep thinking about Eric Garner saying, 'I can’t breathe.'
It made me think -- that’s what Jesus is saying in this culture. Jesus is fundamentally connected to the marginalized and right now Jesus is saying, 'I can’t breathe.'
I think the church should be saying the same thing -- that we can’t breathe in this culture and we have to change this culture in order for us to have breath and exist in this society."
So I won't repeat things here that are being said, more eloquently and powerfully, by others.

What I will say is this:

We are in the season of Advent. And for many in the church--and I would include myself in this--Advent has a tendency to be a warm and fuzzy time, a time of nostalgia and decorations and hot cocoa.

And yet the stories of Advent are stories of a place 5,900 miles away, in an occupied land groaning under the weight of oppressive political structures, violent policing, and economic injustice.

We sing "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie;" but last time I was in Bethlehem it was anything but still: fighter jets thundered overhead, practicing for an assault on Gaza.We sing "In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan," distancing ourselves from the actual land from whence our Christian narrative emerged. We sing "O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel;" and I'd challenge you to travel 5,900 miles and witness those who are locked in captivity, often with no trial, right now.

Our first gospel reading in Advent (Mark 13:24-37) tells of Jesus speaking to his disciples while sitting on the Mount of Olives -- where I lived in Jerusalem. The second gospel reading is John baptizing in the river Jordan, calling for repentance, in an area now under complete Israeli military control. John the Baptist appears again in the third gospel reading, being challenged by religious authorities from Jerusalem. And then the fourth reading, an angel visiting Mary--Mary, who far from a wilting maiden, is the voice crying out to a God who "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly"(Luke 1:52) -- in Nazareth, now a majority-Arab city in the state of Israel whose growth is restricted by racist zoning laws.

This is where Advent happens. This is where gospel happens. This is where we look for Jesus.

And then I glance at my news feed, 5,900 miles away from that place, and there it is, in the U.S., in our cities, and in our neighborhoods.

This is where Advent happens. This is where gospel happens. This is where we look for Jesus.

Jesus who is saying, "I can't breathe."

Ask people where they have seen God in a particular day, and they are likely to tell you that they saw God in a beautiful sunset, or in the kindness of strangers, or in a moment of quiet reflection. And those are all good and true and beautiful places to see God.

But, as impossible as it seems, in Advent we look for God in the midst of the blood and the tears, in a world aching for justice and wholeness.

We are looking for Jesus there. Here.

And if faith is about hoping for the advent of the impossible, this impossible Messiah who comes to "lift up the lowly" and "fill the hungry with good things," to use Mary's words ...

... then maybe folks like me, who sound a lot more like the "proud" and the "powerful" and the "rich" of Mary's song, ought to be a bit less cozy and a bit more uncomfortable about celebrating this season of impossibility.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Impossible Advent -- "INCONCEIVABLE!"

This is [a somewhat questionable post in] part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the previous posts!

I got nothing today, so I'm just gonna leave this here:

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Impossible Advent -- On Vision, of the tunnel, 20/20, and prophetic kinds

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the first post to see where I'm coming from.

In November, in honor of my 30th birthday, I decided to launch a little fundraising page for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. My goal was to get 30 people to each donate $30.

39 people donated a total of more than $1500, and I am feeling immensely, incredibly, impossibly grateful.

It would be hard to overstate how amazed I am. Just three years ago, my parents were picking me up at the end of a several-month stay at a hospital in Connecticut -- a stay that came at the end of several previous months of bouncing in and out of various psych wards. It was a very, very difficult time. And three years later, here I am, smiling in gratitude as I check the fundraising page that will do a little bit to support other people clawing their way through very, very difficult times.

Diane Ackerman writes of those going through such difficult times: "But suicidal people have tunnel vision--no other choice seems possible. A counselor's job is to put windows and doors in that tunnel."

Looking back, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I can see just how right she is. During those 6 months in and out of hospitals, I remember how lonely I felt, how isolated, how convinced I was that nobody would care if I was gone, that in fact being gone would be better for the people that I could vaguely remember loving.

I was blessedly, decisively wrong. I was surrounded, during all that time and the years after, by the best support system that anyone has the right to ask for. Friends, family, and faith communities have lavished me with love and affirmation. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I just couldn't see it at the time.

At the time, my vision was a tunnel, and I couldn't see any light at the end.

Without making too light a comparison, I wonder what this human capacity for tunnel vision says about how we, as a species, view our world. I wonder how much we are all susceptible to that tunnel of despair, that tunnel that makes it impossible to imagine alternatives, or choices, or a better ending to our story.

I wonder if a hopeful vision of the future--the kind of vision spoken of by the prophet Habakkuk--requires exactly the sort of windows-and-doors imagination that Ackerman refers to in her work with those grappling with suicidal feelings. The cultivation of an imagination of what seems, in our tunnel-vision reality, impossible.

And perhaps some day, when we have lived into this sort of seemingly-impossible vision, we will look back on our tunnel vision days and, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, wonder aloud to ourselves:

"How could we not see it, way back then?"


The Diane Ackerman quote is from her essay in Paul Rogat Loeb's book, The Impossible Will Take A Little While (New York: Basic, 2004). 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Impossible Advent - "The Impossible Will Take a Little While"

This is part of a series called "An Impossible Advent." It was inspired by this quote from the book Preaching After God by Phil Snider: "For what is religion if not a love for the advent of the impossible?" If that intrigues you, feel free to check out the first post to see where I'm coming from. 

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help
  and you will not listen?
Or cry to you 'Violence!'
  and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
  and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
  strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
  and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous --
  therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
                       -- from the writings of the prophet Habakkuk

I haven't really known what to say about Ferguson.

Or, to be more accurate, I haven't really known what to say that wasn't already being said, in one form or another, sometimes fiercely, sometimes eloquently, often both, by many other people with quicker reaction times and deeper wells of experience than me. (If you're looking for some of those deeper wells, might I suggest the Theology of Ferguson page?)

Posting this quote from Habakkuk on Facebook was about all I could muster last week, but of course a few verses on a Facebook wall does not deep, lasting change make.

I always have this struggle -- this feeling that others are already saying what needs to be said, better than I could. I'm not trying to excuse myself here: walking across campus today and seeing the students gathered in front of the student center in a "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" pose reminded me of how important it is to speak up:

Students at American University chanting "Hands Up, Don't Shoot"
So these verses from Habakkuk keep echoing in my mind, these words of a prophet who seems at the end of words, who exists in what Howard Thurman, in his commentary on the book, calls a "mood of despair." Justice is perverted, and I don't know what to say, and by not saying anything I'm complicit.

God answers Habakkuk's despairing plea; but as I've reflected on elsewhere, it's hard to be content with God's response:

"Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay."

Not much comfort for those who are sick and tired of waiting.

Dr. Thurman is, as usual, helpful: "The reason for this necessity [of waiting] is made obvious....The vision may not come to pass as quickly as is expected. Here we are face to face with the ever-present problem of timing in relation to ends. The acuteness of human need at any moment may cry out for immediate release, immediate action at the point of urgency. Because the help does not come in accordance with our own timetables, we seem driven to conclude that it will not come at all--or if it does, that it will be too late." In contrast, Thurman describes what he calls "the waiting in anticipation": "Such is the waiting of the righteous, so the prophet insists. It is alert, charged with expectation. It is on tiptoe."

For Thurman, waiting has nothing to do with passivity. It is, to paraphrase the words of Jesus from yesterday's lectionary texts, a quality of alertness: alert to the impossible possibilities stirring under the despairing surface. Or, in Twitterspeak: #StayWoke

The author and activist Paul Rogat Loeb, in the introduction to his book The Impossible Will Take A Little While, writes; "History...shows that even seemingly miraculous advances are in fact the result of many people taking small steps together over a long period of time." Loeb is right. The impossible does, indeed, take a little while. So there is, to again quote Thurman, "the quality of relentlessness, ceaselessness and constancy" to the type of waiting that God calls Habakkuk to take on.

I haven't known what to say about Ferguson, as I often don't know what to say when the violent systems that often operate invisibly--at least, invisible to me and to others who are shielded by our privilege--reassert themselves in overt fashion.

But I am reminded by Habakkuk, by Loeb, and by Thurman, that if the impossible does, indeed, take a little while, that it is likely to start with small, seemingly futile steps:

Students standing together and chanting.
The slow work of creating safe spaces.
The steady growth of boundary-breaking empathy.
Owning my own silence.
Writing --
    -- if not a vision --
         -- then something, at least.

References to Howard Thurman are from his exposition of Habakkuk in The Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), 979ff; and from Deep is the Hunger (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United, 2000). Reference to Paul Rogat Loeb from The Impossible Will Take A Little While (New York: Basic, 2004). References to Jesus are from the Gospel of Mark. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

An Impossible Advent

"For what is religion...if not a love for the advent of the impossible, the unconditional, the undeconstructible, where our hearts long to go with a desire beyond desire and a hope against hope?" -- Phil Snider, Preaching After God

Today, the church enters into the season of Advent, a churchy-word that means just what it means: Advent. Arrival. Coming.

Advent is often mistaken for the prologue to Christmas, but that's not quite right -- the name of the season comes from the Latin adventus, which is in turn a translation of the Greek parousia, a term that usually refers to the traditional Christian belief in the Second Coming of Christ. So Advent isn't a breathless buildup to the "real event" of Christmas day. It's actually a time of slowing down, of paying attention, to the signs of the advent--the arrival--of Christ, not just in the celebration of Christmas, but in our very midst.

But it's hard to slow down and to pay attention right now, to prepare quietly and introspectively to invite Christ into our spare rooms. Hard to imagine readying a space for Jesus in the midst of the injustice, violence, rank materialism, and racism that have [once again] splashed across news feeds and TV screens over the past week. Hard to justify looking for a space for reflection when there is so much to be done, so many calls for action and righteous response.

Not just hard. Almost impossible.

I've been reading a book called Preaching After God, by pastor and theologian Phil Snider. Snider attempts to bring some of the insights of post-modern philosophy to bear on the task of preaching in a congregation where doubt and questions are welcome, where, to use his words, "listeners...believe in God some of the time, or none of the time, or all of the time." And I stumbled on the quote that began this post, in which he calls religion "a love for the advent of the impossible."

Advent is a season of expecting the impossible. And it is exactly against a backdrop of injustice and violence and unrest that we tell the stories of this season, stories of hope stirring in the deep, dark waters of hopelessness.

What impossible things might be arriving in our midst this season? What seemingly absurd hopes might be stirring even now, in the wake of yet more bad news, more infuriating reality checks to the myth of inevitable progress?

What might it mean to observe an impossible Advent?

Over the next four weeks, I'm going to reflect on some of these questions. Some of these little pieces might be explicitly religious; others, perhaps not. Some will be responses to the urgent events of the world, and some will step back from the urgency. Some will be quite concrete; others, perhaps a bit meta.

But I hope that they'll help stir up hope.

Hope in the midst of whatever it is you carry with you these days, whether you "believe in God some of the time, or none of the time, or all of the time."

Hope in the advent, in the arrival, of the impossible.

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 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