My Sermon for National Mental Health Awareness Week

 

I preached this sermon three years ago at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ithaca, New York, one of the first times I shared with the church my own mental illness.

Mental illness, as I describe it in the sermon,  is something that comes to all of us at one time or another. May the church be brave in speaking of it and addressing it.

IMG_8459

 

Living large with mental illness: the other side of the coin

flames of spirit

James Turrell’s Light Raiment II at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus Ohio

It is commonly said that many more people suffer with severe mental illness than we realize and that this is because of the bitter stigma that surrounds mental illness in our society. It is dangerous to share and so many people suffer in silence. This is no doubt true and I have experienced this stigmatization first hands in ways that have been cruel and rather violent in their effect on my life. There are good reasons why many choose not to share their sufferings which, unlike some chronic physical illnesses, are often invisible to those outside.

But there is another side to this invisibility, and it is a more positive side. The truth is that many many people labor under the cruel effects of mental suffering every day and do so incredibly successfully. And not just the so called suffering artist that is so often trotted out as an example of mental illness and creativity. No, its also doctors, social workers, teachers, therapists, yes, even parish priests, who have mental illnesses of some severity and yet day in and day out they do their jobs with great skill, consistency, and even joy at their labors. The resilience of the human spirit is nowhere greater than in such remarkably full, productive, loving lives.

Part of the stigma is in not believing that this other side of the story is real or even possible. This is why revealing one’s illness is crucial, because it gives a lie to the idea that having a serious mental illness is either a death sentence or a mark against one’s ability to be incredibly skilled in one’s job and loving and supportive in one’s family and other relationships. And it gives some  courage to those who are still in the early stages of their diagnosis and recovery to know that a full life is not only possible, but even enhanced by the skills gained and disciplines developed in the ongoing effort to live into the fullness of life one has been blessed to be given. I will never forget the day I discovered the work of Kay Redfield-Jamison, one of the leading psychiatrists specializing in bipolar disorder who also suffers under its afflictions. It is no exaggeration to say that her bravery in describing how it nearly took her life, and exuberance in the full life she now lives helped save me when I was at my lowest. So we pay it forward.

Jesus’ confusion is our glory

confusion

Wadsworth front porch

One of the more remarkable prayers I learned at my retreat at Jesuit Retreat House in Parma was this one by Peter Faber SJ:
O Christ Jesus,
may your death be my life,
your labor iny repose,
your human weakness my strength,
your confusion my glory.
 
The last nine in particular is a tremendous gift for those of us who struggle with our thoughts. I don’t know exactly what incident in Jesus’ life Faber had in mind when he spoke of Jesus’ confusion, but I thought immediately of this one from today’s gospel lection:
 
45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” -Matthew 27:45-46
 
Even our confusion can be a gift from God, and it can lead us to glory because it draws us closer to our God. It is a great temptation in the midst of such suffering, to assume that this is a barrier to love and peace. But Faber’s prayer, drawing on the life of Jesus, tells us otherwise. Endless rounds of trying to get clear in our minds when we are in the midst of mental or physical suffering can be its own form of torture. Instead, accepting confusion as way of drawing closer to God is what Faber suggests we try. 
Lord Jesus, help me to remember you on the cross on those days when my mind is like a cage and I am tempted to bloody my spirit by futile attempts at escape; for you stayed still in those hours and you reached out to the thief who also suffered as you did; may I be more like you in my confusion, that I may draw solace from your companionship and strength to serve even in my weakness. Amen.

The gift of Being bi-polar: Heaven and Hell in the arms of God

serenity prayer path

On the grounds of Jesuit Retreat House in Parma, Ohio

It is a tremendous thing to have spiritual warfare going on in one’s heart, to see God vanquishing the devil and his dark thoughts day after day. A tremendous thing to be invited by God into the drama of the life of his Son who was tormented by dark thoughts day after day and who triumphed in love even at his lowest.

It is a gift to have one’s heart open to spiritual movements, as much of a gift as it was to be a disciple following Jesus all the way to the cross. The spiritually vulnerable are not to be pitied or clucked over by those above the fray. Is anyone above the fray? We might pity those who think so. Should we pity Mary, Jesus’ mother, for her sufferings? Or should we rather rejoice with her for being in her son’s presence all the way to the cross—for it is in this rejoicing, this joyful sorrow, that we find the depths of true com-passion.

This is the boldest thought for one with what today is called a chronic mental illness: that it can be received as a gift from God, with all of God’s tools being given to endure the crosses, the temptations, the stumblings and betrayals, just as they were given to Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene and the others. To see God in the dark nights, to know that these too have their role to play in the story of salvation, to share in community and prayer the silly attempts of the devil to draw us from the love of God and the sure knowledge that even our darkest days do not separate us from the love of God. Confident to the point of what the mystics called insania amoris, insane love, that such days may even bring closer to the one who cried from the cross.

And so this thought today: I thank you God, for making me so marvelously, for all of the many gifts you have given me, not least of which is the gift of a soul that swings from heaven to hell with such ease. May I never reject this gift, but always seek you and your presence wherever you may lead me. Help me to help others to see me as you do, not as damaged goods, but as a glorious child of God, who lives in the darkness and the light, which to you are both alike. Amen.

I call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in my heart; * set me upon the rock that is higher than I.

For you have been my refuge, * a strong tower against the enemy.

I will dwell in your house for ever; *I will take refuge under the cover of your wings.

The Episcopal Church. (2007). The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 (Ps 61:2–4). New York: Church Publishing Incorporated.

Suicidal Ideations and fighting like Wild Bill

I don’t mind admitting that I have suicidal ideations. Have had them for years. Many mornings they greet me with the dawn and hound me for quite awhile until I get out of bed. On good days they dissipate with the worries of the day. On bad ones they hound me at every turn hatching plots and drawing plans.

I am told this is normal for one suffering with clinical depression, or in my case, a diagnosis of Type I Bipolar. I don’t mind admitting to having been given this diagnosis. I’m an alcoholic, fifteen years sober, so I’ve learned that shame is my greatest enemy and that being open is at the heart of my recovery. If it makes others uncomfortable to have me speak so openly about my afflictions, so be it. And I do I try not to make it the regular topic of conversation 🙂

But I also know that for centuries, these thoughts went by other names. Demonic thoughts, devilish inclinations, the serpents’s tail, in one of my favorite poetic ways of putting the matter by Ignatius Loyola, whom I suspect had in spades what we today call bipolar. And I have come to rely upon the spiritual wisdom of the psalms more than anything else in dealing with these demons. Today we read Psalm 55 in our morning prayer lectionary and it, more than any other, describes the turmoil that is my heart on many days—a city full of strife and violence—not an external adversary or enemy, but my own familiar friend—thoughts that are hard to separate from my own voice.

But they mean me harm, as Wild Bill Hickok said in one of my favorite episodes of my favorite tv show, Deadwood. And you have to shoot ‘em down quick, or they can kill you. This is serious business. So, like Wild Bill, I keep guard over the city of my heart, and when I see one of these gunslingers coming my way, I shoot—but now my weapon is the sword, the pistol of the Spirit, the word of truth—the God of my understanding. The thoughts? They come and go. This is as sure as anything. ‘They shall not live out half their days,’ the psalmist writes. God’s aim is true because the aim is love for me and all of creation.

Today, I vow, I will pull the trigger of God’s love whenever warfare breaks out in my heart. And I will trust in this word:

God will bring me safely back from the battle waged against me; * for there are many who fight me. God, who is enthroned of old, will hear me and bring them down;

The Episcopal Church. (2007). The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 (Ps 55:19–20). New York: Church Publishing Incorporated.

Addendum: I have also found that even if I sometimes pay a price for being open, like having people think I am always on the verge of coming unglued, the naming of the thoughts gives them a lot less power. But its taken years to feel safe enough in my life to do so. I know many folks who don’t share because of what it can do to their careers. I know that even in the church, which I have served for over 20 years as a priest, it is not necessarily safe to share this information. You get stigmatized, labelled, dismissed or overlooked for jobs, even as others labor on in hiding or in denial. Its a challenge and one has to discern carefully when to share and with whom. But at this point in my life, it feels like its what God is calling me to do, and at the moment I don’t have a job to protect anyway. And I’ve never been healthier, or more full of joy, including the joy of naming the powers as theologian Walter Wink describes it.

IMG_7856

Catalpa trees and sky at Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus Ohio

Pro-Tips for Bipolar photographers and other strange creatures…m

blue glory

I have been noodling about on a potential book project with the working title: Pro-Tips for Bipolar Photographers and Other Strangers Looking to Get Out of Their Minds and into the Glorious World. (My title is a hat-tip to one of my favorite works of theology by William Stringfellow. I expect my editor will question my exuberance if not judgment :-))

Ten years into my diagnosis of Type 1 bipolar, I’ve developed a number of tools to get out of my head when it betrays me with devilish thoughts. The single most important has been my discovery of the camera a little over a year ago.
Walking each day with the bodhisattva Canon 7D I have gleaned a number of very helpful lessons (at least for me). One came with this picture above. I was on what I took for a pretty rough street in the town I was roaming in. Empty lots, houses with peeling paint and a few with piles of junk all around the yard. I think I heard a snarling dog. I could feel my body tensing up and the aperture of my heart closing in fear.

I have learned over many walks that this  is the exact time in which the camera becomes my most precious tool. If I trust in its impassive ability to see beauty everywhere, that is, when I trust the heart God has given me, I will see signs, icons to steady my mind. Trust that they are there, even in the anxiety, and my path will open.
I turned to my right and at that very moment this image was revealed, a hanging basket of glory on an unassuming porch. Solomon’s could not have been any finer.

Farewell sermon

Preached on June 24, 2018, the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist and also the Feast of Bishop William Alexander Guerry of South Carolina.

img_4029

My predecessor and mentor Gurdon Brewster’s remarkable sculpture of Jesus and Buddha dancing was given to me by the people of Epiphany as a parting gift.

%d bloggers like this: