A Sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, August 18, 2002, Pentecost 14, dedicated to my friend, parishioners, loved ones and their loved ones who have battled depression and various forms of mental illness. Some of them have lived through the terror of the battle and some of them have died fighting. Dedicated especially to one of my heroes in the struggle, Jessie Hall and Garth House, and always dedicated to the glory of God!
Part V of VII in the Summer Sermon Series: "The Seven Lost Keys to Understanding the Misunderstood Jesus"
Today I offer part 5 of 7 in the summer sermon series on the lost keys to understanding Jesus. Today I focus on Sanity. This coupled with Grace, Law, Meekness and Anger (already delivered) and Contentment and Touch are the seven keys. Please pray with me.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
December 10, 1982 started out as a perfect evening. My first semester in seminary was coming to a close. Gathered with my seminary community in the Common Room, over 150 of us were listening to Dr. Roland Bainton, then 90 years old, delivering for his last time, a Christmas sermon from the great 16th Century Reformer, Martin Luther. Drinking hot cider, lounging with friends, laughing at Dr. Bainton's Luther impersonation, and enjoying Christmas Caroling around the piano at Yale Divinity School just fifteen days before Christmas--it was the perfect night.
Into the room stepped David Neff. He signaled for me to come receive a telephone call in our dormitory. It was an emergency call from home. I ran through the snow-covered Divinity School quadrangle that had become my home to take the call. My mother was on the other end of the line. She told me news I pray none of you will ever hear and if you have heard, I pray for you even more.
Mom said "We just received a call from the Blooms. Last night, Sammy drove his car off a cliff near their home. They found the car in the ocean this morning. He's dead, Tim. He left a good-bye note, so they know it's suicide."
Sammy Bloom was dead. Sammy was my best friend from childhood. We grew up together in the church. Although his family lived in the country, we played together as often as possible, and at church we were known as the dynamic duo. His family moved to California when I was nine and I was grief-stricken. Through the years, we kept in touch. Whenever his family came east, we got together. In the summer of 1969, I had spent time in his home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As a young man he had become entangled in a Jesus-type cult (of which there were quite a few in the late `70's). Run by a former Marine, the cult wandered the deserts in California and Arizona. When he finally broke free of the cult, he was found broken physically, mentally, and emotionally. Although he went through intensive therapy, Sam never regained his mental health. When he took his life, he had hit bottom in a pit too deep to see his way out of. He was 23 years old.
Severe depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder and a host of other mental illnesses afflict millions of Americans. While most of us go through dips and turns with mental health, millions of Americans walk daily through the valley of the shadow of death in which their fears are real, their paranoia becomes their reality, and their nightmares afflict them in the height of the day.
Sanity is a gift. It is a gift which we often accept as a given, but for many it is a gift which eludes them and can never be taken for granted. I was told by a friend before writing this sermon to remember not to romanticize mental illness, nor to treat it lightly in this sermon. For twenty years since my friend took his life, I can assure you that his parents and sisters face each day as survivors of suicide. There is nothing romantic about that. They carry the residual effects of their beloved with them, wondering if they had said this or that, done this or that, would he still be with them. As I have looked in the face of suicidal parishioners and street people through the years, his face and the memory of his struggles are always with me.
Describing his own depression, Michel Quoist wrote these words in With Open Hands (p. 173):
A vague feeling of anguish is prowling around me like a caged beast, immobilizing my energies and concentration. The feeling has no shape and I don't know what to call it. I am its prisoner. I've got to shake it off. I need all my energy at the moment, at every moment, if I am to live my life to its fullness. But I won't be free of it until I let the bad feelings wash over me, then faced it without fear, grabbed it with both hands and offered it to God who can bring new life from it. (But I struggle to grab it. It is elusive.)
I can understand (now) the awful pain of those who suffer from depression. It's paralyzing of one's whole being, while others whisper: "He should pull up his socks! Control himself!" But the trouble is, he can't. It's an ordeal, one of the worst. He needs drugs perhaps. But, he also needs someone there, patient, sensitive, to help him set free the little pieces of his life which are stagnating in him, polluting his source. And if he is a believer, he must also be helped to offer to all to God.
I am mindful that the church has had trouble through the ages knowing what to do with faithful servants who walk on the edge of sanity, who live in a world turned upside down. In 1206 a young Italian named Francesco Bernadone stripped all his clothes off before his father, his bishop, a crowd of wide-eyed neighbors and before God. He renounced his father's wealth, resolved to serve the poor and took over a church in ruins. All but God declared him crazy on the spot. 20 years later he was dead. Two years after that, the church decided this crazy man who spent his brief life caring for beggars and lepers was really a saint--St. Francis of Assisi.
470 years later, Vincent Van Gogh, the son of a Dutch Reformed pastor, wrote to his brother Theo, "The Lord has sent me to preach the gospel to the poor." Vincent became a Dutch Reformed church. As he served the impoverished Belgian coal-miners, Vincent gave them all his possessions, including most of his clothes. As a result the church declared him crazy and threw him out of missionary work. Vincent decided he and Jesus knew who the crazy ones were and in 1879 he left the church. But, as disillusioned as Van Gogh was with the church, his faith in God was never stronger. He threw himself into his art with the same zeal for the Lord that he showed in his mission work. He called his work as an artist, "a walk with God." Despite the absolute rejection of the church, he continued to believe that God urges all people to love with reckless abandon. So, thanks to an overly sane and completely sober Dutch Reformed Church, this crazy world lost a great missionary, but gained an even greater painter.
Perhaps it is we, the culturally acceptable "sane ones" who need major readjustment. We have been told that ignorance is bliss, that guns don't kill people, that freedom comes at the price of killing hundreds of thousands of people, that killing people through penalty called death who have killed other people is justifiable--maybe, just maybe, it is we who are sane whose world is already upside down and we don't recognize it because we are standing on our heads.
In 1959, one of America's great theologians, H. Richard Niebuhr had a mental breakdown while lecturing on peace at Yale Divinity School. A friend of mine was present. Niebuhr stopped in the middle of his lecture. His eyes went blank. He walked from the lecture hall. This intellectual, theological giant was not to return to teaching for sometime. When he did, this gentle-souled giant reflected to a listening world, "I was overcome with the feeling that none of what I was saying made sense. It didn't matter. We lived in a violent world turned upside down and I was not going to change it with my words." Who is mad? Niebuhr or the world?
Jewish tradition in Talmud defines madness by four characteristics: tearing one's clothes, walking abroad at night, spending a night on a grave and destroying what one was given. It was not necessary for all four conditions to be present, for it was also felt that a "muddleheaded" and irresponsible demeanor was also considered evidence of insanity. People suffering from insanity were free from religious obligations or punishments and were considered free from legal indictments. One who was mad was not allowed to be married, but if married, and one of the partners went mad, Hebraic law did not allow for divorce of the one who became insane unless 100 rabbis gave permission, and only then in the case of the woman becoming ill.
Both Hebrew and Christian scriptures take a surprising interest in sanity. In I Samuel, when David is running for his life from King Saul, David feigns madness before his enemies. He drools and dribbles in his beard and claws at the door frame with his fingernails as he stands before the King of Gath. The king says, "Why have you brought this crazy man to me? I have enough people in my own ranks who are madmen. Take him away." (Loosely translated from I Samuel 21:3).
In the book of Daniel, we are told that God drove King Nebuchadnezzar out of human society because the king thought he was greater than God. The king loses his sanity, although the effects of this are worse than what most of us have encountered. He eats grass like an ox, lives among animals, his hair grows as long as eagle's feathers, and his fingernails as long as birds' claws. He is like this until he learns that God rules over earthly kingdoms no matter who sits on the throne. With this spiritual realization, his mind returns. He stands on his two legs, spits the grass from his mouth and glorifies God. I hope that any leaders among us involved in politics, business, and other professions where we believe we are in control could learn from this story, that in fact, God is control. This is a lesson for all, not just a select few.
The New Testament also describes tales of sanity and insanity. John the Baptizer, an ascetic who wore goat hides and ate wild honey, was called crazy by all his neighbors. They proclaimed "He has a devil in him." "Wrong!," said Jesus, "there is no one greater than John. And you may recall Jesus' critics called him crazy, too! He enjoyed wedding parties and found it all right to hang out with prostitutes and other unsavory characters, so he was called a glutton and a sot--proving once again that if you despise someone, you can speak all sorts of evil and unkindness against them. The apostle Paul knew all about that. In Acts 26:24, he stands before the Roman governor Fetus and proclaimed more about the love of God than old Fetus cared to hear. Fetus said, "Paul, you read too many books. It's turned you into a maniac!" Fetus associated sanity with not rocking the boat and leaving well enough alone. Paul and other followers of Christ were regarded as crazy people by their neighbors and the rulers of their day because they tried to live like Jesus--which meant turning the world upside down! Apparently, sanity (then as now)--like beauty--is in the eye of the beholder! (Paraphrased from Clyde Fant's The Misunderstood Jesus, pp. 2-4).
In our day and age, we most often use the term normal and abnormal as opposed to sane and insane. Normality is described by one psychology text as having six qualities: 1) Normal people have an efficient perception of reality; 2) Normal people possess self-knowledge; 3) Normal people have the ability to exercise voluntary control over their behavior; 4) Normal people feel self-esteem and acceptance; 5) Normal people have the ability to perform affectionate relationships; and 6) Normal people lead productive lives (from Atkinson, Smith and Hilgard, Introduction to Psychology, NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987, pp.490-491).
In the gospel text from Luke 8:26-39, Jesus encounters the man of Gerasa. The man is clearly struggling on the abnormal side of mental health. He meets none of the six qualities listed above. He has no efficient perception of reality, no self-knowledge, no voluntary control of his behavior, no self-esteem or self-acceptance, no clear affectionate ties to anyone in Gerasa, and his productive ability begins and ends at the point in which he beats himself black and blue with stones. He even fits the definition of insanity for his time: he tears off his clothes, walks abroad at night, spends the nights on graves and destroys what is given him.
He is a tragic character who confronts Jesus face-to-face. He is completely out of control when he comes bounding up to Jesus by the seaside. He reminds me of all too many of our sisters and brothers who walk the streets of our city and the streets and byways of America. The compassionate Jesus accepts him and meets him where he is, this man of Gerasa. He heals him of his afflictions, the demons that are within him go into a herd of swine, who dive into the sea. The man is then sent by Jesus on his way to share with others the good news of his healing. A great story, with a rather strange ending, but where does it leave us?
In his writings, psychologist Carl Jung describes the darkness that is in every person. Jung named the dark side of each human being as the shadow-side. The shadow-side, according to Jung, contains not only little weaknesses and foibles, but positively demonic dynamism. He believed that most individuals seldom know anything about their shadow-side. They ignore the shadow (largely because it looms in their unconscious being) and by so doing, they stand the chance of unleashing a raging monster. This monster, which comes from behind them, often overtakes a person, if he or she lives unaware of it, or in denial of it.
The shadow has implications for the individual and for society. When we as individuals or as a society deny our shadow-side, we allow it to grow and it has the power to overtake us. For example, we can name individuals who are serial killers and mass murderers as identified by the nightly news, but too often the economic killers and social tyrants which cripple our economy and wipe out races and nations strike from behind and we seem paralyzed or oblivious to them their power.
Emmanuel Radl recounts the story of the Spanish anatomist Vesalius, condemned to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land after a supposed corpse he was dissecting opened its eyes and stared at the audience in agony. Radl writes, "what if the cosmos were to raise its head, stare at us and cry out, `People what are you doing to me?' to what Holy Land would we then travel in a hair shirt to beg forgiveness?" (Quoted in The Misunderstood Jesus, p. 9).
From Jung and Radl we are made aware of one of the lost keys of Jesus. For Jesus, sanity is where the will of God is done. Wherever an individual or humankind departs from the will of God, insanity has its beginning point. Sometimes we enter those regions because we are unaware of our own shadow-side. Sometimes we are pulled down into a spiral of insanity because of powers outside our control. But, no matter how we become trapped by madness, the door out is found in the love and grace of God. And God's love and grace never abandons us--even we fail to see it and to feel it.
I wish my friend Sam Bloom had felt the power of God's love and grace before he took his life. But, even so, I am sure that God was with him in the depths of pain and I believe God shared Sammy's pain as his car hurled over the cliff into the sea. Our God was the first wept and mourn Sam's death. For as Paul says in Romans, "neither height nor depth... nothing is all creation can separate from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." In this, our promise and our purpose, we have perhaps the most important key to life--we are loved by God! Amen.
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