My Mental Illness

Perhaps I’ve had it all my life,
(you’d have to ask my kids, my wife,
my mother, sibs, kids in the band,
my teachers–school and Sunday School),
but if they knew, they never said,
(I know at least I never heard
or recall one word mean or cruel),
but when I came to middle age
and could not work in manic phase,
or more precisely, when depressed,
wrung out, unable to get dressed,
only a good psychiatrist
could find the meds to slow me down
when high so I could get around
(But then I found I was not bright–
I could not think, I could not write–
and so I had to fire the shrink…)

(After the suicide of Robin Williams, comedian extraordinaire)

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, August 13, 2014

NOTE: This morning MinnPost published yesterday’s Views from the Edge brief commentary on “Robin Williams and Us” as a Letter to the Editor.

Modern Demoniacs

The story of the Gerasene Demoniac (Gospel of Mark chapter 5:1-20) was to be the sermon today at Shepherd of the Hill in Chaska. Because of a storm that limited attendance, that sermon will be spoken next Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent. In the meantime. this afternoon, one of our members sent me this sermon on the Gerasene Demoniac.

“Modern Demoniacs”

A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
by the Rev. John Kirkley, long-term interim rector
The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco, California

May I speak in the name of God, the one, holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.

Does anyone recognize the name, Claude Eatherly? Major Eatherly was the captain of the Straight Flush, a B-59 that accompanied the Enola Gay in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Responsible for reconnaissance and assessment of the effect of the bombings, it was Earthly who gave the signal to drop the bombs. After the war, he shared his remorse with the German philosopher Gunther Anders in a series of letters that became the basis for the book, Burning Conscience: The Guilt of Hiroshima.

The tall, handsome Texan was completely undone by his participation in the use of weapons of mass destruction (which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors). According to his family, he wasn’t the same person after he left the military in the early 1950s. He was a haunted man, haunted by the inability of his fellow citizens to acknowledge the crime against humanity for which they were collectively responsible. “The truth is,” he wrote to Anders, “that society cannot accept the fact of my guilt without at the same time recognizing its own far deeper guilt.”

As Eatherly’s mental health deteriorated, he seemed compelled to seek out punishment for his crime, to become the scapegoat for a nation that refused to acknowledge its guilt. In between hospitalizations, he became involved in a series of petty crimes leading to armed robbery. Eventually, he was committed to a mental institution based on the expert witness of psychiatrists. Gunther Anders response to Eatherly’s earlier correspondence proved to be prophetic when he wrote, “One can only conclude: happy the times in which the insane speak out this way, wretched the times in which only the insane speak out this way.”

Claude Eatherly, it seems to me, was a modern-day equivalent of the Gerasenes’ demoniac. He was the United States’ demoniac; we needed him, much as the Gerasenes’ needed the possessed man whom Jesus healed. The story of the Gerasenes’ demoniac is a story about the social usefulness of possession. It is a story about the dynamic of scapegoating as a way to deny and displace our collective encounter with evil, whether the evil we commit (as in the case of Eatherly) or the evil we endure (as in the case of the Gerasene’s demoniac). Although the story takes on mythic elements that seem irrational by the standards of scientific materialism, these elements serve to heighten the universality of the story and underscore its truth. The language of demonic possession may seem archaic, but it points to a reality that we cannot dismiss.

Why did the Gerasenes’ “need” this demoniac? What “necessary” role did he play in their community? The country of the Gerasenes was a region encompassed by the Decapolis, ten Greek city-states established and populated by veterans of Alexander the Great’s campaigns. These Gentile cities, originally autonomous, were subsequently caught between Jewish rebels from Galilee and the legions of the Roman occupation. Struggling to maintain their proud independence, these cities were at various times sacked by both Jewish and Roman forces. There was no love lost between the Gerasenses and either the Jews or the Romans.

In fact, the Gerasenes seethed with resentment over the indignities of Roman subjugation. In Jesus’ time, this repressed anger, this despair of ever being free again, simmered well below the surface of Roman control. This is the context in which we must understand the Gerasenes’ demoniac.

It is not surprising that this man’s demons collectively named themselves, “Legion.” His psyche was occupied by the demons representing the spirituality of the Gerasenes under Roman occupation. He internalized the dynamic of colonizer and colonized, characterized by brutality, exploitation, subservience, resentment, and guilt. In his inner life and relationship with his neighbors we see the evil of Roman imperialism writ large.

The Gerasenes and their demoniac engaged in a ritualized drama of bondage and release, whereby the demoniac was repeatedly subdued and chained, only to break free and return to the wild again. It was his self-destructive enactment of their unfilled rage that allowed them to retain a sense of “normalcy” in the face of the dehumanizing constraints of Roman rule. This one man, dwelling naked in the tombs, gave expression to the suffering and powerlessness that no else was willing to acknowledge.

We, of course, have our “demoniacs” as well. Thursday afternoon a woman came by St. John’s looking for her son. She showed me a picture of Nick, a young man in his early twenties diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. He has been living on the street for several weeks, refusing to take his medication and becoming increasingly disassociated from reality. His mother, following a trail of ATM transactions, was led to the Mission.

It turns out that Nick had been a promising film school student at NYU, without any previous symptoms of mental illness – until the events of September 11, 2001. Nick was at school in Manhattan when the terrorists crashed the two hijacked planes into the Twin Towers. It changed his life forever. Shortly thereafter, an agonizing process of mental and emotional deterioration ensued, culminating in his sure conviction that God has called him to save the world by convincing us that we all just need to get along. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Now, I do not doubt that there is something within Nick’s psychological constitution that made him susceptible to being affected by the trauma of 9/11 in this way. He is clearly mentally ill. Yet, I believe that he has been possessed by evil, internalizing the spirituality of the death-dealing institutions of our world that dominate so much of our lives. Like Claude Eatherly and the Gerasene’s demoniac before him, Nick is giving expression in his inner life and relationships to the evil that the rest of us refuse to fully acknowledge, expose, and renounce. In so doing, Nick allows us to feel normal and comfortable in our denial. “Poor Nick,” we say, as if his mental illness is simply a personal problem and not a sign of our collective insanity. One can only conclude: happy the times in which the insane speak out this way, wretched the times in which only the insane speak out this way.

Nick is a symptom of spiritual disease that has infected all of us. We have come to accept a hellish level of violence, dishonesty, prejudice, greed, and xenophobia as normal in our society. In fact, so blind are we to our own faults as a nation that we persist in believing that we have the right and duty to impose our culture throughout the world, by force if necessary. In so doing, we mask our self-interest and will-to-power behind a façade of benevolent aid. We are “liberators, not occupiers,” said the Romans to the Gerasenes. Meanwhile, the suicide bombers keep exploding and the Nick’s keep crying out in our streets. The truth is, we have all been colonized, victims of collective possession, and we cling to the identified demoniacs in our midst so that we can feel good about ourselves.

It is instructive to see how Jesus intervenes in this situation. In Luke’s narrative, it is a bit odd that we find Jesus diverting into Gentile territory at this point in his ministry, a kind of sneak preview of the Gentile mission to come. What is this Jew doing in the Decapolis? Whatever the reason, notice that Jesus comes among the Gerasenes as an outsider, and it is precisely as an outsider that he can see beneath the surface of the spiritual façade operative in the culture of the Decapolis.

The demoniac approaches Jesus, only Jesus doesn’t see a “demoniac.” He sees a man in search of wholeness. Jesus recognizes that the source of this < man’s trouble lies outside of himself, and so he commences to address the foreign power that has invaded this poor man’s psyche. That power’s name is Legion.

Legion doesn’t want to be sent away. The occupying power desperately wants to maintain its foothold somehow, somewhere. Jesus acquiesces to this request, but in such a way as to reverse the scapegoat mechanism that had locked the demoniac in such a cruel relationship with the townspeople. Normally it is the scapegoat who is killed by the people as a substitutionary sacrifice for their sin. Instead, the scapegoat is healed, and Legion, representing the spirituality of the people, is cast into the swineherd and headlong over a cliff. Evil requires a scapegoat in order to maintain its legitimacy; without it, it dies.

The townspeople are definitely not happy with Jesus. The cost of his intervention to heal this man was simply too high for them, economically and spiritually. The loss of the swineherd is a significant financial loss, and in the spirituality of Legion, profits always have more value than people. While the Gerasenes marvel at the healing of the demoniac, they are also afraid. Who will be their scapegoat? Must they now acknowledge their own inner violence and despair? That is simply too much to ask, and so they beg Jesus to leave them alone.

The demoniac is like an alcoholic who gets well, depriving everyone else in the family of their scapegoat. Suddenly, everyone is in an uproar because the family drunk is unwilling to carry all the negative emotional energy. What, you mean I have to look at myself now instead of focusing on you as the problem? No thanks!

In an extraordinary example of what Freud called “the return of the repressed,” the “Legion” that is cast out by Jesus subsequently reappeared in the form of an actual Roman legion that occupied the Decapolis less than forty years later. The demoniac was healed, but the people refused to accept the implications of his healing for their own spiritual well-being. Unable to acknowledge their hatred of the Romans, and without a scapegoat to accept their displaced violence, it erupted in a bloody revolution that was ruthlessly suppressed.

What is perhaps most astonishing, is the response of the man formerly known as the Gerasenes’ demoniac. The townspeople find him clothed and in his right mind at Jesus’ feet, in the posture of a disciple. When the townspeople run Jesus out of town, he pleads to go with him. Jesus responds, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Which is exactly what the demoniac-become-disciple did.

His courage in so doing is nothing less than breathtaking. Jesus calls us to the same form of discipleship as the former demoniac. Our faith is not a retreat from the world, a following Jesus that takes us out of the brokenness of our world. It is rather the marvelous gift of freedom from possession by the evil powers of this world, precisely so that we can offer a voice of peace and hope to that very world.

In a world such as ours, this gift of awareness can feel like a terrible burden sometimes. As daunting as it may seem to hold together both the pain of life and its inexhaustible joy simultaneously, to fail to do so leaves us vulnerable to becoming either a scapegoat or a devotee of the spirituality of Legion. In our baptism, we renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, as well as the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. Together (for we cannot do it alone) we must refuse, with all our might, to collaborate with structures of evil, so that the insane will not be the only ones to speak out; and, what is more, so that there will be no need for insane people. In renouncing evil, we must renounce our need for scapegoats as well, until all God’s children know the joy and dignity for which they were created.

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Amen.

•The Series: `Do Justice'. Reflections before and after GC 2003.
•Assays. A Series of reflections before GC 2000
•Joy Anyway!. Reflections and Visions of Anglican Pilgrims.
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The Bouquet

Re-posted by Sojourners’ blog, “God’s Politics with Jim Wallis” March 27, 2012.

Most every Sunday Ruth or Lily Janousek hands me a drawing on the way out the door. I have quite a collection.  Lily and Ruth are budding theologians. They may not know that about themselves, but that’s what they are: budding theologians – they do theology, they do their best to speak of God.

They draw pictures of God and us. Like the one from last Sunday. The drawing of a bouquet with the words:

“God doesn’t loves us as a flower but as a bouquet”

Right then and there, standing at the door last Sunday, I knew I had the sermon for the next week in my hand.

Ruth’s drawing took me back some years ago when I had the great privilege of serving as the summer minister for Saint Timothy’s Memorail Chapel in Silver Cross, Montana, a ghost town with four residents where they would bring the world’s greatest preachers!  One of the four residents of Silver Cross was the 92 year old Eliza who lived up the hill, perhaps the length of a football field, from Saint Timothy’s . Every Sunday morning Eliza would cut the wildflowers in her yard, arrange them into a beautiful bouquet and place them on the altar for worship. Now I get a drawing from eight year old Ruth, younger version of the 92 wilting theologian, Eliza.

“God doesn’t love us not as a flower but as a bouquet.”

I wonder who the flowers are in this bouquet, the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus speaks of it in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-14) or, the Body of Christ, as Paul speaks of it in First Corinthians.

As in Ruth’s drawing and Eliza’s Sunday morning arrangements, a bouquet is made up of a variety of flowers. Individual flowers come in a single size and shape, eac with its own color. In a bouquet, these different colors, shapes and sizes complement and contrast with one another to make something altogether beautiful in the hand of a skilled florist.

Ruth may be a rose and Lily a sunflower, Bob might be a purple Iris, and I might be…a Milkweed or a thistle or a twig of red oshier – but put us all together and we become something more than who we are.

God loves us as a bouquet. We are God’s bouquet. We are the flowers; God is the florist; we belong in God’s bouquet.

Could this be what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount?  Could the collection in Jesus’ Beatitudes be the bouquet, the Kingdom of Heaven?

Listen to the florist’s strange list of flowers in this bouquet:

Blessed are the poor in spirit;

Blessed are those who mourn;

Blessed are the meek,

Those who hung and thirst after righteousness,

The merciful, the pure in heart,

The peacemakers,

Those who are persecuted,

Those who are slandered against for doing what’s right.

“You are the city set on a hill that cannot be hid. the bouquet that cannot be ignored.”

Until this morning, I had always thought of these individual beatitudes as a description of the individual life of the disciple of Jesus. But to think of them that way is depressing because it’s unachievable.

In a former pastorate I used to visit four young men in psychiatric institutions whose demented states of mind I was sure were rooted in some way to their failure to measure up to this impossible spiritual standard. Each of them was a professor’s son. Each of them had been raised on a missionary style of Christianity. Each of them had been raised to feel sorry for the persecuted, the meek, the poor, the oppressed. And each of them, as we walked the grounds of the psychiatric hospital in Mansfield, would talk as though he should be able to save the world from its pain. Each of them seemed to believe that purity of heart meant being like Jesus – which meant to them incessant suffering, guilt, and sorrow.

Each of these brothers bore the marks of the Beatitudes. Each was poor in spirit. Each hungered and thirsted for justice. Each was merciful. Each was pure in heart. Each felt persecuted for pursuing what was right in a world that didn’t care or didn’t know. Each of them felt slandered for doing what their parents – and Jesus – had taught them to do.

But there was one quality that was missing: the quality of meekness…

So long as they lived in the illusion that they, as individuals. were responsible for the world as It was, or that each of them alone was responsible for ridding the world of its suffering, each of them was lost in the lonely world of a flower without a bouquet. So long as they embraced the twisted missionary moralism of their distorted Christian upbringings, they would suffer the horrors of shame and loneliness.

Now, I know, of course, that each of the four brothers I visited back then were mentally ill. They didn’t choose to be in the state psychiatric institution. But I also knew their parents. And I knew the church in which they had been raised. It came as no surprise to me that there seemed to be a profound connection between what I was hearing from the homes and the church of their upbringing and what I was hearing form their sons in the psychiatric hospital.

I have to admit to sharing in the twisted spirituality that saw the Beatitudes as a list of requirements for the Christian life. It’s made me sick along the way.

But this morning, in light of Ruth’s yellow card from last Sunday, I’m seeing them differently.

“God loves us not as a flower but as a bouquet.”

Not every flower in God’s bouquet is poor in spirit. Not every one of us is in mourning. Some of us got up this morning with smiles on our faces and a song in our heart. Not every one of is meek.  Not everyone came here this morning hungering and thirsting for righteousness – some of us came out of habit; some of us came for comfort, some of us came to sing some hymns. Some of don’t know why we came. Not everyone is known by acts of mercy – we come with grudges and desires for retribution. Not everyone is pure in heart or a peacemaker. And almost of none of us is being persecuted as advocates for social justice.

But TOGETHER all of those blessed people are here in God’s Bouquet.

Makes me wonder whether Jesus had read the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scriptures of India written two to five centuries before he preached the Sermon on the Mount in Palestine. Listen to its familiar ring, and let the Florist place you in the vase of God’s remarkable Bouquet.

“I am the Self…seated in the heart of every creature. I am the origin, the middle, and the end that all must come to.

“All your thoughts, all your actions, all your fears and disappointments, offer them to me, clear-hearted; know them all as passing visions.

“Thus you free yourself from bondage, from both good and evil karma; through your non-attachment, you embody me, in utter freedom.

“I am justice; clear, impartial, favoring no one, hating no one. But in those who have cured themselves of selfishness, I shine with brilliance.

“Even murderers and rapists, tyrants, the cruelest fanatics, ultimately know redemption through my love, if they surrender

“To my harsh but healing graces. Passing through excruciating transformations, they find freedom and their hearts find peace within them.

“I am always with all beings; I abandon no one. And however great your inner darkness, you are never separate from me.

“Let your thoughts flow past you, calmly; Keep me near, at every moment; trust me with your life, because I am you, more than you yourself are.”

Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

Youtogether – are the salt that preserves the earth from its own self-destruction.

“You – together – are the city set upon a hill that gives light to the world.”

We together – each and all – are God’s bouquet. God loves us as a bouquet!