Faith and Mental Health: Beginning the Conversation

Scripture: Psalm 31:9-20

You may remember that back in January, we were supposed to have a guest preacher in worship, David Finnegan-Hosey, the author of a book called Christ on the Psych Ward.  The book is about his reflections on faith and mental illness, in particular as someone who has been hospitalized multiple times with bipolar disorder.  I was excited for David to come because I know mental illness is a subject that is near and dear to many of our hearts here at Arlington Temple, some of us because it is part of our own story, some of us because we’ve been affected by the struggle of a loved one.  It seemed like an important subject to address, and he seemed like the right person for the job.

We ended up getting snowed out that Sunday, so we never had a chance to hear from David, and so far rescheduling has not seemed to be a thing that has worked out.  But two good things that came out of it all were both seeing the interest in the subject, and even getting to hear more of your stories that I hadn’t before.  So I decided it was still time to talk about mental illness, whether or not we had a published author to get the conversation started.

I’ve thought a little bit about why I’ve never preached on the subject or tried to get this conversation going before.  It’s not because I didn’t think it was important, or something we should talk about in church.  I think, honestly, it’s because I didn’t feel like I was the right person to preach on something like this.  I’ve never been diagnosed with mental illness; neither have any of my close family members, and I don’t claim to be an expert in the subject.  I thought it would be much more powerful, and, perhaps, informative, to hear from someone like David Finnegan-Hosey.

But let me tell you what has been true for me.  I’ve never been diagnosed with a mental illness, but there have been times in my life when I’ve wondered if I should be.  I have sat in my doctor’s office during a season of depression that seemed to be going on longer than just a slump, and asking whether it was time to start thinking about medication.  This was about a year ago, so not that long; in the end, vitamin D supplements seemed to work for me, though of course that is not the answer for everyone, and though of course they are not magic and I’ve continued to struggle from time to time.  I’ve sat in my OB’s office, six weeks after giving birth, trying to figure out whether what I was feeling was just normal new parent anxiety or actual clinical postpartum anxiety.  I was helped by counseling during a particularly hard semester in seminary, and have looked into it since.

I tell you these things in an effort to be as honest as possible, and not to either claim a certain experience for the purpose of being able to tell a more powerful story, or to set myself too far apart from that experience.  One writer I like, Nadia Bolz-Weber, says that it’s the job of the preacher to say “I’ll go first,” and so I share my own real, if somewhat mundane, experience as a way of trying to make space to talk about these things.

Next week we’ll hear from one of our church members about his own struggle with mental illness, but what I want to do today is just to bring up some things that I think it’s helpful to keep in mind when talking about mental health and mental illness in church.  I may not say all the right things, here, or use all the right language, and that’s always something that makes me nervous when I’m talking about something that is both intensely personal to many people and also potentially fraught, but again, I hope this can be an imperfect opening to a bigger and ongoing conversation.

The first thing I want to do is to define our terms, namely mental health and mental illness, which I don’t mean as simple opposites.  Our state of mental health might be better or worse, and certainly change with time and circumstances – whether or not there is diagnosable mental illness involved.  Just like with physical health, it is possible that I might not be sick, but I also might not be healthy – I might have high blood pressure, for example, or be lacking in cardiovascular endurance. As I’ve already shared, I really don’t know where that line is where we start to call things mental illness.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness tells me that approximately 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness in a given year, which says to me that mental illness is not always permanent or chronic.[1]  Just like there are things I can do to help my physical health, like eat vegetables and get my steps in, there are things I can do to help my mental health, like get enough sleep and be intentional about taking my days off – but sometimes we just get sick, and it doesn’t have to do with anything we did or didn’t do, it just is.  And at that point no dietary change or yoga practice is going to change anything, and we need to call in doctors and sometimes drugs.

I also want to stress that mental illness, like physical illness, can mean a lot of different things.  We may hear a phrase like “mentally ill” and a certain image comes to mind – someone on the street talking to themselves, for example, or the latest perpetrator of some violent act in the news – though there are likely some misconceptions at work there, because not only are the vast majority of people with mental illness not violent, but most perpetrators of these high-profile acts are not diagnosed with mental illness.[2]  When we talk about mental illness that can include everything from depression and anxiety, both of which are extremely common in our country today, to things like bipolar, and PTSD, and schizophrenia, and plenty of other things.  The experience of any one of these diseases is not the same, and of course people with the same diagnosis may have very different experiences with that illness too.  When we get into the world of faith, people may also have very different experiences in that arena – whether it’s a strong sense of Jesus having pulled you through and saved you, or a time in your life when God seemed especially absent.

The truth is that these things are often hard to talk about, and not just in church.  I was thinking about this just the other day.  I’ve been thinking about resuming my search for a counselor, especially as I’m preparing for a new baby and the life transition that comes with that at the same time my dad’s health is declining.  I thought maybe I would ask for a recommendation in my neighborhood Facebook group.  I’m an enlightened person who doesn’t think there should be any stigma around these things, so why not?  Yet I found myself typing the question and then deleting it before I posted.  It just seemed like maybe TMI for this group of people, most of whom I don’t really know.  And yet I wouldn’t have hesitated to ask for a recommendation for a dermatologist.  We often don’t feel like we can talk openly about our mental health struggles – maybe simply because they are so personal, but also perhaps because we are afraid on some level of what people might think.

And if these things are hard to talk about outside of church, the unfortunate thing is that they are often even harder to talk about in church.  We may talk a good game about how church should be a place where we can come and bring our brokenness but often it’s a place where we feel some pressure to present a certain image of ourselves.  Some of us may come from faith backgrounds where mental illness is talked about in terms of sin and faith: if we just pray hard enough or have enough faith, it will go away.  And, you know, I don’t come from that kind of theological background, and I don’t believe that mental health is just a matter of faith, and I didn’t grow up believing that, and have never believed that – and yet still, last year, when I was wondering whether I was clinically depressed, I still found myself falling in to that trap sometimes, of feeling like I had plenty in my life to be thankful for, and so it was some sort of spiritual failure on my part that I couldn’t just count my blessings and be joyful.  Still, this is an important ground rule for any conversation around faith and mental health: mental illness is not a sin or a punishment or a matter of weak faith, in the same way that cancer is not.  It is a thing that sometimes happens to us.

So what does the Bible say about mental illness?  I think that’s actually a tricky question.  The short answer is nothing, explicitly, because like a lot of other things that might be pressing questions for us today, the people who wrote the Bible had no real concept of it.  That’s not to say mental illness didn’t exist, just that people in the Ancient Near East weren’t talking about it in those terms.  The Bible does describe people who might have been suffering from mental illness.  For example, in the Old Testament, in 1 Samuel, we read about King Saul, who seems to grow more and more paranoid as a young musician in his court named David rises in power.  We can imagine plenty of the psalms – including the one we read today – being written by someone with depression, who sees nothing but his enemies surrounding him and feels like God is far away.  But it’s probably not useful to try to go back into the story and diagnose anyone too specifically.

In the New Testament, one of the things Jesus often does is cast demons out of people.  One of the best-known stories of this variety is the story of the Gerasene Demoniac, told by Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Mark (5:1-20) describes a man who lives on the outskirts of society among the tombs, who had been bound with shackles and chains, but managed to break out of all of them.  “Night and day,” Mark writes, “he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.”  In the Bible, demons always recognize Jesus.  These demons beg Jesus to cast them into a herd of pigs nearby, which Jesus does, the pigs all run off a cliff, and when the townspeople gather, they see this formerly demon-possessed man “clothed and in his right mind.”

I’ve heard it said more than once, especially by people who don’t believe literally in demons today, that what people in Jesus’ time understood to be demon possession we would now understand as mental illness, and I’m sure if I encountered someone like this man today, that’s how I would categorize what was going on with him, too.  But I do think we need to be careful, because again, we can’t go back in the story to know what exactly was going on with this man, whether it was a matter of literal demons, or something we would now call mental illness, or something else.  I can imagine that for some people, the idea of one’s life being taken over by a negative force outside of oneself might be a helpful connection to draw – and other people might not love that connection between being suffering from mental illness and being demon-possessed, as if all that’s needed is a good exorcism.  So that’s probably one of those areas where we should listen first to people who have been there and how the text does or doesn’t help them understand their own experience, rather than trying to come to any hard and fast answers.

So what then can we say as people of faith, as the church, about mental illness?

For that I turn to some of the insights of an author named Sarah Griffith Lund, who wrote a book called Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family and Church.  Sarah Griffith Lund is a pastor in the United Church of Christ, and she grew up with a father who suffered from bipolar disorder, and then later, an older brother who did as well.  She talks about asking questions, throughout her life, of where God was and is in it all.  Finally, she says, “Faith is not an anti-depressant.  It cannot be swallowed in order to rewire our brains for happiness.  Rather, faith allows us to accept the coexistence of God and suffering.  We do not have to choose between two realities, because if we did, God would have to go.  There is no way we could deny the existence of suffering.  I believe God exists in this messed-up world, and, in the moments of greatest pain, God is there to wipe away our tears.”[3]

David Finnegan-Hosey, likewise, talks about how the one Bible verse that kept coming to mind for him during his own stay in a psychiatric hospital was 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Can Jesus heal us?  Yes.  But often not in the way we think.  As Sarah Griffith Lund puts it, “No, God will not give my brother Scott a new, disease-free brain.  But Jesus watches over my brother and creates in him a clean heart.  The burden of suffering can be shared so that it’s not soul-crushing.”[4]

Our Christian faith tells us that none of us is defined or condemned by a diagnosis.  Jesus looks at people others don’t know what to do with and sees people who are beloved children of God, worthy of love, worthy of healing, worthy of community.  And I believe that as the church, as the Body of Christ, that’s how we are called to see each other as well – to help share each other’s pain, see each other’s gifts, and acknowledge the image of God that each one of us bears.

And that means making room for the different stories that each one of us brings – including the stories that are sometimes hard to talk about, including the stories where mental illness is a part.  We don’t need to pretend, here, not to be broken.  We don’t need to pretend to be satisfied with easy answers that don’t really seem to bear out.  We do need to listen, and pray for one another, and remind one another that we don’t need to be whole to be loved.

There is much more that could be said, and I hope it will.  I do hope it helps get things out in the open when it comes to faith and mental health and mental illness, and I hope the conversation can be ongoing.  I’ve had the opportunity to say this in a number of contexts recently, but I think it can’t be said enough: no matter your story, no matter your struggle, you are a beloved child of God, and no struggle, no diagnosis, no experience, no stigma has the last word on that.

 

[1] https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5154170/

[3] Blessed Are the Crazy, p. 75.

[4] Blessed Are the Crazy, p. 98.

Easter Sunday: The Other Mary

Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10 (with reference to Matthew 27:55-56, 61)

My name is Mary.  No, probably not the Mary you’re thinking of.  I’m not the Mary who gave birth to Jesus, and I’m not Mary Magdalene, either.  You might know me – if you know me at all – as “the other Mary.”  That’s what Matthew mostly calls me.  Once, he identifies me by my sons – “the mother of James and Joseph.”  Other than that, I am defined only by who I am not.

I’m named after Miriam: Mary in its Hebrew form.  In our Scriptures Miriam is a prophet, the sister of Moses.  Unlike her, though, there is nothing special or distinctive about me.  My name is the most common woman’s name in my world.  I am not famous.  I’m not even infamous, like my Magdalene counterpart, who is still sometimes called a temptress and a lady of the night and accused of bearing our Lord’s secret children, though those are mostly unfounded rumors.  According to Luke she had seven demons cast out of her, but she doesn’t talk much about that.  She will only tell you that she was lost, and then was found.  No one would ever think to accuse me of the things they say about her.  No one would make a movie about my life.  I’m a bit part in the resurrection story, out of the picture as quickly as I move in.  I am known – if I’m known at all – only for being in the right place at the right time.

My story didn’t begin at the empty tomb, though, or even at the cross – the first place Matthew ever mentions me.  It began on the shores of the sea of Galilee, where I grew up, selling the fish my father and brothers caught at the market.  I married, had children, they grew up; my husband died.  But I was always resourceful.  I cooked fish and sold them, and I did OK for myself.  And when my sons left their nets on the shore one day to follow this wandering preacher who said something about fishing for people, I followed too.  What did I have to lose?

You won’t read much about me in the pages of the Bible today, but I was there.  I sat at his feet and listened to his stories and wore out my sandals walking back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee.  I cooked meals for Jesus and the Twelve.  That’s what he called his closest friends, the Twelve.  I gave all my fish money to support him.  I never minded being behind the scenes – in fact, I never expected anything more.  I did it all because I believed in him.  I did it because he made me feel important and unique, like even I had something to give. I did it because when he talked about the Kingdom of God, I could almost see it taking shape in front of me.

I did it because I saw God embodied in him.

I went with him everywhere he went, usually at the back of the crowd.  I was there when he healed people and cast out their demons.  I was there when he fed the masses that gathered for his stories.  I was there when he stole a donkey and rode into Jerusalem and the crowds shouted Hosanna, and I shouted Hosanna, too.  I was there at the cross, me and Mary Magdalene, when everyone else had run away – even my own sons.  We knew we couldn’t change anything.  We had never had that kind of power – a woman of ill repute, and a nobody.  But we had given our lives to this man who had given us life in return, and we couldn’t leave him, not then.

My name is Mary, and I was there.

My sons always believed that he was going to save us.  They said that all of these little things he said and did added up to revolution, and that one day he would free us from the Romans and our own oppressive leaders alike.  I guess I believed that, too.  But honestly, the way I saw it, he had saved me already.  All I know is that in his presence I felt whole for the first time, like I was more than just another Mary.  The day he died, I know a piece of my sons died as well – the piece that hoped he was going to change the world.  But a piece of me died too, like I was nobody once again.

When his body was taken down from the cross and brought to the tomb, Mary Magdalene and I followed.  Where else did we have to go when the world was ending?  And we sat there, in front of the stone.  We sat there for a long time, keeping vigil.  We sat until soldiers came to make sure the tomb was secure.  They were afraid someone might steal his body and claim he had risen from the dead.  We scoffed at them, but not out loud.  The soldiers made us leave.

The next day was the Sabbath.  We cooked dinner for the Twelve – the Eleven, now – and others who had gathered.  Somehow a group of Jesus’ scattered followers had found their way back together.  Nobody talked much.  There wasn’t really anything to say.  We went through the motions of washing and cooking and serving.  We were still in shock that it was real.

When the Sabbath was over, at dawn the next morning, Mary Magdalene and I walked back to the tomb.  There was something that drew us back to that place of death.  We would keep our vigil, one more day.  It was still too soon for life to move on.

I still find it hard to talk about what happened that morning.  I hardly know what’s real, in my memory, and what’s my mind trying to put it all together.  I remember feeling like the earth was suddenly shifting under me, and looking back it’s hard to say whether that was literal, or metaphor.  I remember a bright, blinding light, and the soldiers who were keeping guard falling to the ground.  I know that when I dared to look up, the stone in front of the tomb was gone.  Mary and I just stood there, frozen.  At least that’s how it plays back in my mind now, but it’s fragmented, one image after another in no particular order.

What I know is that he was dead, but then he was alive.

It’s hard to put together exactly what happened, but I can still hear the words in my mind: “He isn’t here.  He’s been raised from the dead.”  I can still feel my feet on the rocky ground, running back to the others, my head pounding with excitement and confusion and fear.  But most of all I can see him there, in front of us, on the road.  Telling us not to be afraid.  Giving us a job to do – to tell the others, to spread the word.  Only on the way did it start to sink in.  Only then did we begin to give this thing a name: resurrection.  Only then did we start to realize: we were the first to bear this news.

I can understand, I think, why he picked Mary Magdalene for the job.  She had a dramatic life story, even if the details varied depending on who was telling it.  She was the repentant sinner, the prodigal daughter, the one possessed by seven demons.  It was the kind of story that inspired people and brought them to faith and made them believe that anything was possible.

But me?  I wasn’t anyone important.  I’m the daughter of a fisherman, and the mother of fishermen.  I traveled at the back of the crowd.  I cooked meals.  I never had a good backstory.  I was the “other” Mary, just one of a thousand Marys.

But I was there, and this is my story now.  I know people may doubt it.  Sometimes I even do.  People may ask me questions that I’ll never be able to answer.  But I’m going to tell them what I know – and that is that he died, but then he was alive.

I used to think, even after it all, that what happened that day was good news for somebody else.  For Mary Magdalene, or for my sons, or for the Twelve: the ones who would become leaders, and go on grand adventures, and risk their lives in the face of the empire, and change the world.  I thought it was for people with dramatic conversion experiences, for all those people who could speak and see and walk for the first time.  I thought it was for people with great faith.

But somewhere along the way I realized: resurrection wasn’t just good news for them.

It was also for the nobodies, the skeptics and the doubters and the hopeless, and all of us at the back of the crowd.  It was for the fishermen who never followed, the boring and the overlooked, and everyone who never had a good story, and everyone still waiting for their bodies and spirits to be healed.

It was for me.

My name is Mary, and when Jesus rose to new life that morning, so did I.

 

 

Turn Back: Turn Back to the Cross

Scripture: Matthew 27:55-61

Writer Rachel Held Evans was only five years old when she asked Jesus into her heart.  By her own description, she was at the time “a compact little person with pigtails sticking out of [her] head like corn tassels, and [she] remember[s] thinking it strange that someone as important as Jesus would need an invitation.”  “Strange now,” she says, “is the fact that before I lost my first tooth or learned to ride a bike or graduated from kindergarten, I committed my life to a man who asked his followers to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return, and to face public execution if necessary.  It is perhaps an unfair thing to ask of a child, but few who decide to follow Jesus know from the beginning what they’re getting themselves into.”

It’s true, I think.  Few of us know what exactly we’re getting into for when we declare ourselves followers of Jesus.  Those of us who grew up in church singing Jesus Loves Me probably didn’t really know at the time.  Those of us who found ourselves attracted to Jesus later in life might not have completely known either.  And maybe every once in a while we still find ourselves wondering what we’ve signed up for here.

That said, I have to imagine that Jesus’ first disciples probably had even less of an idea what they signed up for.  When Jesus showed up one day on a sandy Galilean beach and said follow me, who among them could have known where that road would eventually lead?

That’s why we probably can’t blame them for what happened during that fateful week in Jerusalem.

As today’s service began, we were in Palm Sunday, celebrating Jesus’ last triumphant entry into the city of Jerusalem as the crowds cheered him on and hailed him as king.  It’s now about half an hour later and we’ve moved on all the way to Good Friday, and his death on the cross.  It was a whirlwind week and we try to cram it all into one day. But in doing so we’ve already skipped over a few parts of the story: the part where Judas agrees to betray Jesus in exchange for silver.  The part where Peter says he’s ready to die with Jesus, but then denies he even knows him, three times.  The part where the authorities come and arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and everyone with him runs away.

The Gospels tell us that a lot of people followed Jesus. But, just like in the parable of the seeds sown on different kinds of land, some would-be followers undoubtedly missed the life they behind.  Some probably faced the wrath of the religious leaders, and got scared.  Some, I’m sure, simply forgot why they were following at all.  Or maybe they simply wanted a clearer picture of where they were going before they went any farther.

The twelve disciples followed almost to the bitter end.  They followed as far as Gethsemane.  Then they ran.  Peter followed a little farther, to the high priest’s house, where his Galilean accent gave him away.  We don’t know what happened to any of those disciples after that—but in Matthew, Mark and Luke, by the time the cross casts its shadow over the city of Jerusalem, the twelve are nowhere to be found.

These are people who have been through a lot with Jesus, good and bad.  They’ve taken a risk on following a call.  They’ve seen miracles and their imaginations have been sparked by stories.  They’ve been challenged to live the kind of life God really wants from them, and they’ve found the kind of grace you need to do it.  They’ve chosen this life – but they’re not quite ready for a cross.

And maybe we can relate.  Surely we’re here for many different reasons: we want to be fed, we want to find purpose, we want to find enlightenment, we want to find community.  Maybe we want to escape from the hurt and pain of life for a little while.  And none of those are bad reasons.  But who among us, really, is prepared for our faith not just to feed us or comfort us or inspire us but to lead us where we don’t want to go?

This Lenten season we’ve been talking about turning back – how repenting of our sin means turning back to God and to the people God calls us to love.  We’ve talked about turning back to our neighbor, and creation, and the stranger, and our enemies.  But here, on this last Sunday of Lent, I want to talk about turning back to a place – turning back to the cross.

I said that all of Jesus’ disciples fled.  But actually that’s not quite true.  Because after it’s all said and done, after Jesus has been crucified and died, Matthew tells us this: that there were women there.  And when everyone else ran away, they were there, looking on from a distance.

It seems like a small detail in the whole passion drama —one it might be easy to overlook.  In the midst of all the action, Matthew pretty much says, “Oh, yeah, and I almost forgot: there were some women there, too.”  But I think this one small afterthought of a detail reminds us of an important truth:  that if we keep following Jesus, that journey always leads us to the cross.

That’s an important truth and also an uncomfortable one.  It’s the reason we cram Palm Sunday and Good Friday all into one day, because the danger is that otherwise we go straight from Palm Sunday one week to Easter Sunday the next.  We get the triumph of the grand parade and the triumph of the resurrection, and we don’t get the pain and the brokenness and the sin and the evil that necessarily comes in between.  We’re happy to wave palms and say that Jesus is our king, but that’s not the sum total of what following Jesus means.  At some point, if we keep following, we’re going to end up somewhere we’d rather not be, precisely because that’s where God is.

I’m not just talking about fasting during Lent or dragging ourselves to church even when we’re tired or it’s nice outside.  Those things might be part of the journey, but they’re not where the journey ends.  I believe we end up at the cross when we find ourselves willingly in the midst of human brokenness.

I don’t think that means the same exact thing for all of us, since God calls each of us to follow in different ways.  Maybe the journey leads us to a homeless shelter or an AA meeting or a hospital room or to the border.  Maybe it leads us to people suffering from the effects of institutional racism or people suffering from the pain of illness or hopelessness.  Maybe it leads us down the street or to another city or another county or just to someone at school.  Maybe it leads us on a career path that lets us address some of the pain and problems of our world, or maybe it leads us to a certain way of approaching life that isn’t about the work we get paid for.  But if we haven’t followed Jesus in some way to a place where there is brokenness and suffering, then I’m not sure we’ve followed him very far at all.

That kind of place is where those female disciples found themselves that day at the cross.  They saw where this journey of following Jesus was leading, and they weren’t afraid to face it.  They didn’t duck out early.  Their path led to the epicenter of human brokenness—fear, greed, power-grabbing—and there they stood, in solidarity with its ultimate victim.  Was it hard? I’m sure it was.  Was it sad?  Of course.  Was it scary?  No doubt.  But they were there.

Each week in Lent I’ve given you a challenge, a question to think about: how will you turn back to your neighbor, or to the stranger, or to creation, or to your enemy?  Here on this last week of Lent, my question is: how will you turn back to the crucified Jesus?  How will you follow him into the heart of human sin and suffering, rather than turning away?

That’s a question I think about for myself, sometimes, knowing how easy it is to get so wrapped up in whatever is going on in my own life, good or bad, that I don’t always listen to Jesus calling me out of that to meet him somewhere else.

I can think, early on in my ministry, of a woman I knew whose husband had just died after a short and brutal battle with cancer.  He was only maybe 60.  I remember that his wife showed up at church early that next Sunday morning after he died.  I had plenty to do that morning, but I think the bigger truth was that I didn’t know what to say.  Nothing could make it better.  So I didn’t say anything.  She showed up later at in my office door in tears, angry at me, and I learned a lesson in ministry that morning that I’ve had to keep learning: that sometimes it’s really hard to go where there is suffering, to sit there with it and sit there with the doubt that you’re making anything better at all – but you still go.

But I also think about what following Jesus to the cross means for us together as a church.  In January we approved the basics of a deal to redevelop our space along with our next-door neighbors, and we’ve been moving ahead with that.  One of the questions we asked ourselves early in the process, before we were sure what it all looked like, was would we be willing to sell this land and move across town if that was on the table?  And the answer we always came back to was no, because our mission is here in Rosslyn.

I think that was the right answer, and maybe it’s time to think more about what that means.  Frederick Buechner says that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  What is that pain and brokenness and hunger that exists right here in our neighborhood?  Some of it is literal, as we know from the people in our community to who come to our Fellowship Hall to get something to eat during the week.  Maybe God is calling us to follow further along that path.  Or maybe there are even new ways we might meet Jesus on the cross just outside our doors – in people who are hurting, or lonely, or lost, or hopeless, or in need.

It’s not necessarily about being able to solve all the world’s problems, because we can’t and that’s not our job.  The women at the cross didn’t have the power to change anything.  But they had the power to be there when so many others were not.  Who knows?  Maybe Jesus caught a glimpse of them from a distance before he breathed his last, and maybe it made him feel a little less forsaken.

Maybe that’s the reason these same women got to be the first to discover the empty tomb. They didn’t try to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter.  They didn’t run away from what happened in the meantime, and that’s why they got to be the ones to see how God’s grace and love was doing something in all of it and to tell others about it.  Maybe they were the only ones to be able to see the full scope of God at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Maybe we can only truly glimpse God’s glory when we see it from the perspective of the cross.

According to tradition, the disciples – the twelve/eleven – did turn back to the cross.  It wasn’t until after Easter, but somehow then they understood that the cross was the only path to glory.  Most of them eventually suffered and died for the faith they professed. And in the end, whose faith journey hasn’t taken a few twists and turns and setbacks before we realize where we’re supposed to be?  And yet, the women were there.  Before they even believed in this promise called resurrection, they were there at the cross, simply because that’s where following Jesus had led them.

Can we say the same?  Is our journey toward the cross this Lent more than just a journey to Good Friday?  Is it a journey that brings us to where God’s people are suffering?  Is it a journey that leads us to brokenness before it leads us to victory?  If we’re following Jesus, the answer is bound to be yes.

That’s why I still have to wonder every once in a while—what have we gotten ourselves into?

Turn Back: Turn Back to Your Enemy

Scripture: Luke 26, 32-38

Jesus makes this forgiveness business seem so easy, doesn’t he?

As we meet him in today’s Scripture reading he’s just been betrayed, arrested, and abandoned by his disciples; he’s been brought before the Jewish leaders and led away to the Roman governor, Pilate, and accused of treason; he’s been handed over to Roman soldiers to be crucified, at the demand of an unruly mob.  We’re skipping ahead a little bit in the story, here.  Next week, as Holy Week begins, we’ll take a step back and march into Jerusalem with Jesus for Palm Sunday, and we’ll move with him through those events of that last fateful week in Jerusalem.  But today we have Jesus already on the cross, and as Luke tells the story, the first thing Jesus does is pray this prayer of forgiveness for the people who put him there.

There goes Jesus, making us all look bad, as usual.  Because there he is on the cross, forgiving people as it’s all happening – not a year later, or 20 years later, post-resurrection, after he’s had a chance to gain some perspective on the whole thing, but right then.  And meanwhile if I’m honest I’m still a little bit mad at that guy who said that thing to me in middle school that one time.

And to tell you the truth, I’m not so sure about this prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Because whether he means the Jewish leaders or the Roman soldiers or the unruly mob, surely they knew what they were doing.  They might not have realized the cosmic significance of what they were doing, killing the Son of God.  But surely each of them knew deep down that this wasn’t someone plotting revolution against the empire; that this wasn’t someone who was deserving of death.  It doesn’t seem to me that we can so quickly exonerate them, and yet Jesus does.

Well, in any case, we might say, it’s Jesus, and so while this prayer for forgiveness from the cross may be one whose power comes from its very questionability, it’s not like Jesus expects the same kind of forgiveness from us.  Except where he does: like in that part in Matthew where he talks about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (5:44); or that part where he says to forgive someone not seven times but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22); or like in the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer he taught that we now repeat every week in worship: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Jesus may have special forgiveness powers, but that doesn’t let us off the hook.

This Lenten season, our focus is on turning back to God and the people God calls us to love.  We’ve talked about turning back to our neighbor, turning back to creation, and turning back to the stranger.  Like it or not, part of turning back to God is also turning back to our enemies and the people who have hurt us.  And that means learning how to forgive a little more like Jesus.

I guess I shouldn’t just assume that we’re all just looking for excuses.  I think, for the most part, we know that forgiveness is something good Christians are supposed to do.  We know that forgiveness isn’t just about meeting some impossible divine expectations, but that it’s for us, and our own well-being; we know that it doesn’t do us any good to go around carrying that burden of resentment and bitterness.  We know that that’s not the abundant life that God wants us to have.

On one or two occasions I’ve had conversations with people who knew all of these things.  They came to me and shared a story about a person who had hurt them and they said, “I know that I need to forgive this person.”  And then they said: “So how do I do that?”

And I answered, <shrug.>

Because the thing is that Jesus really never tells us how to forgive.  He tells us to do it.  He gives us reasons to do it, like the fact that God has already had mercy on us (Matthew 18:23-35).  He gives us examples, like this prayer from the cross, and maybe that example can inspire us – but he never really tells us how.  It seems to me that the Bible rarely gets into the how-tos of discipleship.  Maybe that’s because these are things that it’s best for God’s people to figure out ourselves, in any given place and time.

But in light of these conversations I’ve had, I’ve started thinking that this question of how to forgive someone would be a really good question to be able to answer as a pastor.  I can believe that a lot of us might be stuck right in that same place: wanting to forgive, but not quite knowing how to actually make it happen.  So in the name of turning back to God and our enemies this Lent, I decided to do a little research.

If you’ve heard my story of my call and journey into ministry, you know already that part of it includes reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness, about his time chairing South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid.  His involvement in that process established him as a global expert in forgiveness and restorative justice, and the powerful stories he told of black and white South Africans forgiving each other for heinous crimes made me believe, somehow, that I could forgive people in my life who had hurt me in much smaller ways.

But at some point someone must have asked Archbishop Tutu that same question I couldn’t answer, because a couple years ago he and his daughter Mpho wrote this book together, The Book of Forgiving, which is all about the how-tos of forgiving someone.  In it they tell different stories of journeys to forgiveness: some from the context of post-apartheid South Africa, but some more personal, as well – like the Archbishop’s struggle to forgive his father, now deceased, who had been physically abusive to both him and his mother in his childhood.

The books describes what the Tutus call the “fourfold path” of forgiveness:

First of all, you have to tell your story.  Telling your story is how you begin to piece things together and make meaning out of what has happened.  It might not be completely linear; you might not be able to put all the pieces together all at once; the way you tell the story at first might not be the same way you tell it later.  It doesn’t matter.  The important part is to tell it, because, they write, “if I tuck my secrets and my stories away in shame or fear or silence, then I am bound to my victimhood and my trauma” (78).

Sometimes telling your story might mean telling it to the person who hurt you.  But not always.  For one thing, that might not always be possible – if something happened a long time ago, that person might not be in your life anymore, or might not even still be alive.  It also might not always be helpful, and might even put you in physical or emotional danger again.  Still, you can tell your story to a counselor; or a trusted friend; or me; or you can write it down.  Again, telling it somehow is the important thing.

Then, you have to name the hurt.  As we tell our stories and begin to put the pieces of the past together, we have to be able to say “This is how I was hurt.  This is the harm that was done.”  The alternative to being able to name how we were hurt is denial, and as they write, “A harm felt but denied will always find a way to express itself” (96).

For Mpho Tutu, one of the biggest struggles with forgiveness she faced was when a woman who worked for her, Angela, was murdered in Mpho’s own house by the man they had hired as a gardener.  While the harm done to Mpho wasn’t the same as the harm done to Angela and her family, there was still plenty of anger and plenty to forgive – the fact that the killer had robbed her family of their sense of safety in their own, traumatized Mpho’s children, forced Mpho to be the one to deliver the news to Angela’s family.  She had to be able to name those things in order to move forward.

The next step is granting forgiveness. Forgiveness is about starting to be able to tell a new story: “a story that recognizes the story of the one who hurt you, however misguided that person was.  It is a story that recognizes our shared humanity” (133).  It’s not about justifying or excusing what happened, but being able to see that person’s brokenness as well as your own as part of a bigger picture.  In fact, maybe that’s what Jesus was doing with his prayer from the cross – not excusing the people who put him there, but also acknowledging that what put him there was bigger than any one leader or soldier or person in the crowd; it was about the brokenness of this world and what happens when that brokenness meets the pure and radical love of God.

Finally, you have to decide whether to renew or release the relationship.  Both are valid options.  Forgiving someone doesn’t always mean entering back into a relationship with them, especially, again, if your physical or emotional safety would be at risk for doing so.    It can mean simply that you let them go and wish them well, or at least wish them no harm.  But even renewing the relationship, the Tutus say, doesn’t mean that relationship looks exactly like it did before.  It can’t.  It’s more about writing a new story together.

I want to be clear – and the Tutus are also clear on this – that none of this is about “forgiving and forgetting.”  Forgetting sounds suspiciously like denial to me.  Rather, the whole process is about accepting what happened – not as something that is OK, but simply as something that happened.  That gives us the power to not be imprisoned by it anymore.

Maybe all of this still sounds too simple, like if you just put in your problem and turn on this forgiveness machine you can crank forgiveness out the other side.  I think we all know that’s probably not the case, even if we wish it were.  We’ve probably all had someone we thought we had forgiven that maybe it turned out we hadn’t; we’ve thought we were over something just to have something bring it back up.  Life is messy like that, and maybe that’s another reason the Bible doesn’t give us that many how-tos: because it knows that life is messy and none of this is that simple.

The Tutus also say that we shouldn’t expect the process to be linear.  Sometimes we’ll find ourselves stuck between step two and step three; sometimes we’ll have to work through the steps multiple times.  Linda Biehl is a mother whose daughter Amy went to South Africa as a Fulbright scholar to do anti-apartheid work there and ended up being murdered in one of South Africa’s townships.  Linda ended up not only forgiving the people who killed her daughter, but establishing a foundation in Amy’s memory and hiring two of the men who killed her.  “I have forgiven them,” she says. “Every day I wake up and my daughter is dead.  Most days I have to wake up and face her killers.  Some days I have to forgive them over again” (54).

That sounds like real forgiveness to me – it’s raw and it’s messy and it’s not linear, but it’s real and God is there in the midst of it.  Because in the end, without forgiveness, we can’t really have any community or society at all, much less one that reflects the Kingdom of God.

The truth we come back to is that we need mercy and forgiveness as much as we are called to give it.  That the “they” in “they know not what they do” is us, all of us.  We know enough that we can’t just be let off the hook for the decisions we make that hurt other people, at least not all the time.  We’re not always even sorry.  But still Jesus died the way he lived: extending grace and mercy, no strings attached.

Knowing that, how are you going to turn back to your enemies this season?  How are you going to write a new story?

In a few minutes we’re going to have communion, and communion is a time for reconciliation as we all get to come to God’s table and receive God’s grace in tangible form, together.  You don’t have to have your whole life in order or be at peace with everyone you know in order to come – that is never a prerequisite for receiving God’s grace.  At the same time, as you come to the table today, I invite you to think of someone with whom you need to make it right or who you need to forgive.  Then resolve to go start that process when you go out those doors today.  It may be imperfect and messy and that’s OK, because God likes to work in the midst of imperfect and messy.

In today’s Scripture reading we meet Jesus on the cross, but the cross is never the end of the story.  You know what is?  Resurrection, and life and love on the other side.  In the end, our sin and brokenness can’t stand up to the power of eternal and abundant life.  And neither can anyone else’s – like it or not.