The following sermon was preached on September 15th of this year. This week marked the anniversary of 9/11 and the Feast day of Harry Thacker Burleigh, the greatest African-American composer and arranger of the black spiritual tradition. This Sunday also marks the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows in the Roman Catholic tradition and who is celebrated within the black spiritual Weeping Mary sung most famously by Paul Robeson. In our worship, we looked forward in hope and joy with Mavis Staples, our nations finest singer of both gospel and soul from within the black church tradition. Her arrival for a concert in Cleveland this week gave us added encouragement to find our joy even within what she and her beloved father Pops Staples call ‘the heavy.” Sha la boom boom yeah!
(Apologies for the poor sound quality. I preach on the floor, not the pulpit and the microphone is not as close as desireable. And, as always, when preaching without notes, mistakes are made. Dvorak was Czech for example, not Hungarian. But as I remarked in the sermon following the great African theologian St. Augustine, our mistakes are only another way for the one we call our Higher Power to show that power even in our weakness.)
In my new job as an addiction recovery chaplain, one of the first themes we have explored in chapel was that of the need for trust. For reasons that I think will need a book to work out, my own thoughts on this topic draw me continually to the subject of birds, in particular, sandhill cranes. This is a snippet of some draft notes for that book.
Most of my friends know by now of my deep and passionate love of a pair of sandhill cranes that reside in a marsh here in Medina County. I named them Gene and Grace (Kelly) for a number of reasons. Cranes are renowned for their remarkable dancing and for me the image of Gene Kelly dancing in the rain is one that fills me with great joy, especially knowing that he had a high fever on the day he shot that iconic dance scene. Also, one of my best friends in college, one who listened with amazing attentiveness to me as I struggled with my own wounds is also named Eugene, or Gene as we called him then. Naming animals is a tricky thing, but usually they have a way of letting you know if you’ve got it right.
Grace lost the bottom part of her leg this spring in an accident and now relies even more upon her partner Gene to keep watch for her and the potential enemies she is less able to defend herself from. As I watched her bow down low on one leg to forage for food, I was struck by the gracefulness of her movements and the name Grace seems most fitting as I thought of the slow moving beauty and resilient strength of the iconic Grace Kelly.
Cranes are the oldest species of bird known. They have been revered by all cultures, civilizations, and religious traditions where they reside, including the Buddhist, native American, African, and Christian traditions.
Cranes typically mate for life and are fiercely loyal to one another. Both the male and female take time to sit on the nest while the other keeps guard and gets some food. Because Grace lost part of her leg this spring, they were unable to produce any offspring. Grace struggles somewhat to forage, and when she does, she is more vulnerable since she can’t use one of the bird’s best defenses, a strong kick. Gene is always by her side. Always. And when she bends down to eat, he is usually scanning the horizon for any threats. This is trustworthy love in action. We are all wounded in ways, but some are more vulnerable than others and one way to think of prayer or spiritual practice is as attentiveness to the vulnerable heart of another. This is Gene in action.
In the Christian tradition cranes are revered for their prayerful attentiveness. It was believed that, like monks in a monastery, or residential staff in a recovery center, it was crucial for there to be one or two cranes who stayed awake all night to insure the safety of the rest. Cranes are known for sleeping on one leg. In the medieval imagination, it was believed that the other leg held a large rock, symbolizing the rock of Christ, which, if the guardian bird were to accidentally fall asleep, would hit the ground with a loud thud and awaken the birds to their danger. These verses from the First Epistle of Peter were likely in the monks minds when the imagined the cranes this way:
Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Be sober. Be Watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.
Here are snippets from two sermons speaking of their qualities and an icon from a medieval Christian bestiary. Theologian birdwatchers have been drawn to their watchfulness, one of the most important qualities in a strong prayer life. Though their ornithological accuracy may be in doubt in the thoughts, Isidore and St. Antony are surely on to something by seeing that our own attentiveness to the virtues of natural world have much to teach us. By their faithful presence to one another day after day, Gene and Grace have taught me a great deal about how to be a trustworthy partner to those I love. And they have taught me one way to think about what it means to pray without ceasing.
Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:14-15): Cranes (grues) take their name from the murmuring sound they make. When they are travelling somewhere they follow the letters of the alphabet. They fly at great altitude so they can see the lands they seek. The leader in flight maintains the line of birds with its voice; when it grows hoarse another bird takes its place. At night they take turns acting as guard; the one on duty holds a small stone in its claws to hold off sleep, and cries out at anything to be feared. Their age is revealed by their color, because the darken as they grow old.
St Antony of Padua [12th-13th century CE] (Sermons): Merciful men compared to cranes. Let us, therefore, be merciful, and imitate the cranes, who, when they set off for their appointed place, fly up to some lofty eminence, in order that they may obtain a view of the lands which they are going to pass. The leader of the band goes before them, chastises those that fly too slowly, and keeps together the troop by his cry. As soon as he becomes hoarse, another takes his place; and all have the same care for those that are weary; so that if any one is unable to fly, the rest gather together, and bear him up till he recovers his strength. Nor do they take less care of each other when they are on the ground. They divide the night into watches, so that there may be a diligent care over all. Those that watch hold a weight in one of their claws, so that, if they happen to sleep, it falls on the ground and makes a noise, and thus convicts them of somnolency. Let us, therefore, be merciful as the cranes; that, placing ourselves on a lofty watch-tower in this life, we may look out both for ourselves and for others, may lead those that are ignorant of the way, and may chastise the slothful and negligent by our exhortations. Let us succeed alternately to labour. Let us carry the weak and infirm, that they faint not in the way. In the watches of the night, let us keep vigil to the Lord, by prayer and contemplation.
For great is your love toward me; *
you have delivered me from the nethermost Pit. –Ps 86:13
Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us *
and the years in which we suffered adversity. –Ps. 90:15
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.
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.
2 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.
3 For you have been my refuge, * a strong tower against the enemy.
4 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.
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.
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.
“To despair over one’s sin indicates that sin has become or wants to be internally consistent. It wants nothing to do with the good, does not want to be so weak as to listen occasionally to other talk. No, it insists on listening only to itself, on having dealings only with itself; it closes itself up within itself, indeed, locks itself inside one more inclosure, and protects itself against every attack or pursuit by the good by despairing over sin.” —The Sickness Unto Death
So we must prune the rank and sordid overgrowth of sin by nourishing the lilies of the valley even in the shadow of death.
The following reflection came in response to an online discussion by a group of Episcopalians about a bishop of the church’s statement that Robin Williams’ death by suicide was selfish. This is very delicate territory, so I advise readers to be gentle with themselves if they choose to read. It is not usually helpful to think that there is a ‘wrong’ response to such a trauma–nor do I think the bishop in question is wrong in his expressions of anger and anguish, feelings that so many of us have felt about the loss of a brother (Williams was Episcopalian). In fact, I admire him for his bravery in speaking from his heart.
Is suicide selfish? The question itself puts the matter immediately into the realm of moral theology, which is where the church has often put it. But I wonder if there’s a better way. Christian thought has often struggled with dualistic assumptions regarding the mind and the body, with the mind thought to be something completely other than the flesh and not subject to its limitations.
Recent work in neurobiology has challenged this assumption. The brain is of course a part of the body, and our thoughts are themselves inextricably bound to our bodily states. This is something the desert monks knew as well as today’s neurobiologists and body-oriented psychotherapists, of course, but alas, it is too often forgotten. Ravaging physical illness can lead the mind astray, and severe depression can leave the body utterly listless and undone. Read the rest of this entry »