The suicide of Robin Williams comes on the heels of my return to urban ministry… a context that heightens awareness of and exposure to those with mental illness. Or, at least those with uncontrolled and improperly-medicated mental illness.
I remember being in a meeting in a suburban church I served and having someone mention the estimate on the percentage of the population that experiences mental illness. It’s roughly 25%. Someone in the group was incredulous and remarked aloud that that number seemed excessive. I remember wondering how many of us sitting in the room at that very moment were medicated but unwilling to speak up.
In the Christian sub-culture I’m afraid we still have a long way to go in our understanding of and response to mental illness. In the Christian culture of my upbringing I recall many a conversation among friends, fellow-church members and relatives regarding suicide. The often given response was that it was an unpardonable sin, thereby implying that anyone who took their own life would be condemned to eternal damnation. (Never mind that Jesus himself states in Mark’s gospel that there is only one unpardonable sin: blaspheming the Holy Spirit.) My mom, who’d experienced severe depression following the sudden death of her father-in-law, brother-in-law and a miscarriage, was often in the room when those conversations took place. She never spoke up either… who could have blamed her. Such conversations often referenced sorrowful Old Testament characters like King Saul who, according to the Deuteronomist, was troubled by “an evil spirit from God.” For ancient persons, God (or the gods) were directly responsible for all such behaviors and attitudes. Their understanding of brain chemistry had a ways to go.
Today, thanks to modern science and medicine, we know better. But I’m not so sure we are communicating any better. I’m afraid many Christians are still made to feel that depression is incompatible with Christian faith, as if the lack of “the joy of the Lord” indicates a lack of God’s presence.
Williams’ death has caused the media to rise up with compassion and information. But media attention is swift and short-lived. It can be, and should be, the job of the Church to make sure such understanding, compassion and mercy is not a “flash in a celebrity pan” but the enduring good news of the grace of Christ.
Just last weekend, we euthanized our dear Doberman of 15 years, Eirene. If I could only use one adjective to describe Eirene, I would choose the word “gentle.” In Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus pronounces a blessing on the gentle. He says, “Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). I know most of our English bibles says “Blessed are the meek,” but, trust me, “gentle” is a much better translation of the Greek word.
I often joke that I wish I was more like my dogs. Although lacking in theological sophistication, they (sincere confession here) are sometimes more “Christ-like” in their behavior than their human master… (that would be me). And Eirene’s ability to remain gentle and calm under any and all circumstances (OK, squirrels were an exception) was astonishing.
Last summer, while living in Indy, the two of us were walking and stopped to visit with a neighbor and her bulldog. The neighbor’s cat began to approach Eirene. I was a little uneasy. I told the neighbor, “she’s never met a cat up close; I don’t know what she’ll do.” But Eirene stood perfectly still while the cat came to her, stretched upward and touched her nose to Eirene’s nose. Satisfied that they were adequately acquainted, the cat went on its way.
As a pastor, I am often in situations where someone new “checks me out” (OK, they never try to press their nose to mine… that would be weird and socially unacceptable) and I am rarely as relaxed as Eirene. Sometimes it is awkward, sometimes I wonder what they think of me or wonder about questions they ask me. Sometimes I am cautious and “draw back” from the conversation. But not Eirene. Throughout her life, she was relaxed in everyone’s presence and allowed everyone to introduce themselves in their own way, at their own pace and on their own terms. Now you see why I say, I try to be more like my dog.
This past week’s world events hardly paid any tribute to Eirene’s life. It has been anything but a gentle week in the world. It has been brutal and aggressive. It took confidence and trust for Eirene to stand so still when that strange unknown cat got right up in her face. Gentleness borne out of confidence and trust appear to be qualities we human creatures are severely lacking. But what a blessing it would be to our world, to God’s Kingdom, if we could put more gentleness into practice.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place,
and there he prayed. Mark 1.35
It was exactly one week ago that Britt and I moved out of our home in Indianapolis. We’ve spent this past week hanging out in Cincinnati and tomorrow we will leave for our new home and ministry in Lafayette.
I have welcomed this past week tremendously because it’s been a needed time for rest. The scripture above is one of my favorite. On a first read, it looks like it is nothing but segue material. Jesus had a rock star day of healing people in Peter’s hometown. And now, he’s moving on to the next town to do it all again. These couple of transitional verses go by so quickly, they don’t even merit their own heading in most bible translations…
which really isn’t all that surprising because we’ve become a culture that doesn’t pay much attention to transitions and segues and “down time.” Professionally speaking, “down time” can be judged as “wasted time;” but I’m going to assume that Jesus wasn’t in to wasting time. If you read Mark 1:36-38, you’ll discover that Jesus’ disciples go and hunt him down. (Apparently they also considered “down time” to be “wasted time.”) They tell Jesus what he needs to do next. But Jesus doesn’t give in to their pressure. He announces that they’re moving on to the next town. Jesus’ time spent in prayer defines his itinerary and his tasks.
This past week has been for me a time of “deserted place;” quiet, open space for me to catch my breath a little, to pray, to reflect. Cincinnati is hardly a deserted place, technically speaking. But it has served to be my own version of a “deserted place” and I don’t think my time here has been wasted.
Morton Kelsey writes in The Other Side of Silence: “Silence can be a mini-experience of death and resurrection. It is a temporary cessation of our doing and planning and desires… Action, planning and desiring are all suspended, entrusted to [God] in silence, while the thoughts and emotions and realities that surround them are properly prioritized.” [p. 128] I hope that, in the silence of this past week, I’ve embraced the opportunity for God to put my thoughts, my plans and my desires in proper order…
And I have given thanks to have had this deserted place and open space.
“And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8b, NRSV)
I’ve spent this past week ruminating over all of the violence in the news. Britt and I watch the nightly news over dinner many evenings. If the news starts while one of us is in the kitchen, it’s become not uncommon to hear the question, “Is that the same shooting they covered last night?” No, sadly, it’s often a brand new, fresh dose of lethel violence.
I guess violence is nothing new. Those early stories in the book of Genesis reveal not only the character of God; they reveal the character of humanity. Lots of people debate the reason behind God rejecting Cain’s sacrifice. But, I don’t think that is the point of the story.
Who knows why, as humans, we so easily experience resentment, envy and anger. It seems to well up in us so easily. And who knows why we so easily allow those emotions to lead us to sinful responses. We resent the student who gets a better grade, the co-worker who gets a more lucrative promotion, the neighbor who gets a new, flashy car. And, while murder is still the response of the minority, we find other ways to do one another harm and destroy the competition.
Above all else, the Church ought to be a place where we can model and present an alternative response… a response that says, “even if I don’t think things worked out as they should have, I can choose gentleness over retribution.” Right now I feel discouraged that my chosen “brand” of Church (the United Methodist Church) seems so saturated with violent rhetoric over the issue of homosexuality. I appreciate the efforts of Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter and many others to try and develop a way for us to move forward as a denomination (www.awayforward.net)… and I don’t claim to have any better answer; that’s for sure. But, at the very least, it seems our violent language that so frequently labels those of differing viewpoints as less than Christian cannot be in any way helpful to us or to the world that observes our witness.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not so naive as to think that, were the United Methodist Church to change the way we speak to and about one another, that it would put an end to all the world’s violence. But it might, at least, be a good place to begin and to remind ourselves that God has created us with free will and a choice: we can choose to see the other as competition to be eliminated or as brother and sister.
When I should have been in a session during Annual Conference this weekend, I decided to go to the movies instead! Our conference was able to preview a movie that Group Publishing will release sometime this fall. Called “When God Left the Building,” it’s a documentary about the decline of the American Church. (OK, I didn’t say it was a happy movie!)
It looks at the state of a variety of churches in America – some thriving, some failing, some mainstream and some cutting edge. But, the bulk of the film is focused on a dying church in upstate New York. What makes the film especially interesting is that its producer (a life-long photographer) parallels the church’s story with that of the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, NY. The film maker interviews one of Kodak’s product engineers who, incidentally, created the first prototype of the modern digital camera! But, the Kodak big shots weren’t impressed by the idea and so it was never pursued.
Many of us can remember the Kodak ad campaign that ran from 1950-1990: The Kodak Moment. Four decades is an awfully long time to run one ad campaign! It became part of our vernacular. We described sentimental occasions as “Kodak moments.” At one point in the interview, the Kodak engineer expresses what we all could have figured out: that Kodak didn’t know what it was or what it should be. He says something to the effect of, “Were we a film company, a chemical company, an image company?”
I’m sure that everyone else in the room viewing the film with me was relieved that I didn’t blurt out what came immediately to my mind: “You’re a Moment-Making Company!” It’s your image! It’s your slogan! Why not live it?
If Kodak’s goal had been to provide America with the means to capture the moments of their lives, I think they could have much more easily made the leap to digital photography. When I was 11, my big sister graduated. I wanted to capture that moment. I took a picture with my camera, dropped off the film at the drug store and several days later, I had a moment captured forever. Two weeks ago, when my husband graduated with his Ph.D., I took a picture with my phone. I captured a moment so I could text, Tweet and FB it. It was all about the moment.
At another point in the film, the pastor of the dying congregation is asked to recite his church’s vision statement. Neither he, nor any of his parishioners can do so! There’s nothing uncommon about that.
I think that, sometimes, churches struggle because they develop an image or persona (i.e. an ad campaign) that doesn’t match their vision or their reality. And so we have conflicting messages; there’s inconsistency and confusion. Lots of churches in America come up with slogans, vision statements, purpose statements, etc. that describe something awesome and worthy of pursuit. But, like Kodak, we don’t always follow through. We want catchy words and phrases that will capture people’s attention. But if the words or phrase can’t be seen – or, if people don’t realize the power behind the words – it’s an empty and vain pursuit.
I wonder if Kodak ever realized that those “moments” were what the company was really all about. Their capacity to empower all of us to capture joy, awe, goodness and beauty. And isn’t that joy, that awe, that goodness, that beauty in life what we’re all trying to capture? Now that Kodak has gone by the wayside, perhaps there’s an opening for another organization to reveal joy and awe and goodness and beauty…
I’ve decided that life is like my refrigerator…
I hate cleaning my refrigerator. I usually clean it at the point that shame (at my messy refrigerator) outweighs my dislike for the chore. I don’t even understand how refrigerators get so dirty… except that my mom always said I was a really sloppy cook. I cleaned my refrigerator yesterday because a friend is dog sitting this weekend and I didn’t want her to see my dirty refrigerator… OK, it’s that shame thing again.
The primary reason I hate cleaning my refrigerator (aside from the fact that I always spill water on my shirt and my kitchen floor during the process) is that I can never get the shelves and drawers back correctly in exactly the same configuration as I began with. It’s so frustrating. I don’t know how someone with a higher education can be completely thrawted and utterly defeated by a refrigerator… but my defeat is pretty consistent. Until last night! Last evening I managed to clean the entire refrigerator, remove every drawer and shelf and get them all back in with ease. While one would think this accomplishment would fill me with joy, my response is one of utter disgust. “Why?” you ask. Because in about six weeks, my refrigerator and I will part ways when I move out of my house. It will remain behind to gloat to its new owners of its roughly 10 and 1 record. (OK, I’ve anthropomorphized my refrigerator, but indulge me.)
It dawns on me that life is a little like my refrigerator. It seems that, just when I begin to feel like I am really catching on to something – really understanding how all of the pieces fit together – it is time to move on. When I arrived at Castleton three years ago, one of my primary tasks (actually the only one that has remained consistent since day one!) was to focus on developing small groups. I’d had some success beginning a small group ministry at my church in Gary. But now, three years later, I realize how little I knew and how much of those first several months involved floundering and fumbling. Over the past two years, mountains of books, conversations, research, etc. have taught me so much about effective small group discipleship. And here it is: time to move on.
I once had a supervisor who assessed that I “like things a little edgey.” By that I think she meant I enjoy a good challenge… although sometimes I’ve wound up biting off more than I can chew. And yet, I suspect she’s right. Life is continually changing and, without those new challenges, think of how bored we’d all be.
In this Easter season, I wonder sometimes why it is that – of all the benefits we’ve received through Jesus – we talk so little about the blessing of becoming part of God’s family. Now, I don’t want to downplay benefits like forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. But I can’t help but wonder: Do people who don’t consider themselves religious really think much in terms of sin and holiness? I’m sure they think about right and wrong, but “sin” seems like an awfully “churchy” kind of word. And, as for eternal life, I once had a friend tell me that the thought of living forever in some “form” that couldn’t be clearly described or defined, just seemed freaky and a little scary!
But I think all of us can relate to the idea of family… even if our primary reference is one of a dysfunctional family. And, when family is dysfunctional, I think somehow, somewhere down deep, we know it isn’t right and we long for a healthier experience of family.
In John’s gospel, right in the introduction, we’re told that, by trusting in Jesus, we become “children of God” (John 1.12). And, on Easter morning, when Jesus talks to Mary in the garden, he tells her to “go to my brothers” [the disciples] to tell them, “I’m ascending [up to heaven] to my Father and your Father…” (John 20.17). Over and over again, scripture reminds us that trusting in Jesus makes us part of God’s family; which means it makes us part of one another.
When I pastored in Gary, I had eye surgery. It turned out to be a way bigger deal than the surgeon told me it would be. For the first week, my eyes were stitched almost all the way shut! My sister in Pennsylvania couldn’t drop everything, drive nine hours, and come take care of me. But, my church family did. They took turns. They’d sit with me when my husband had to go to work. They brought me groceries and cooked for me. They even brought over dog food (for the dogs, not me!). Since I could hardly see, one even read to me from bible commentaries… although I do think she got a kick out of inventing crazy pronunciations of technical bible study terms.
Family – when it’s functional, when it works like it should – are the people who take care of us, help us, and make sacrifices for us. If and when Church is that kind of family, why don’t we talk about it more?
I’m gonna try and talk about it more this Sunday…