Mental Illness in the Bible

Something different here -- a sermon from the batshit crazy preacher --

[When I Googled mental illness in the bible, I was, frankly, appalled by what came to the top of the page. So I hope this banal title will make a better message easier to find. If you share this post, you can do that service.]

Now to the sermon:

1 Kings 19:1-15
Psalms 42&43
Luke 8:26-39

I don't often preach about mental illness. I'm not sure I have ever heard more than a mention of it by any other preacher. But today the lectionary asks us to tell stories that are not told.

Because we are no strangers to mental illness,and neither is the Bible. There's Saul, his bipolar episodes and his suicide. There's Job and Jeremiah, hardcore depressives. There's neurotic Paul himself, though that diagnosis has gone out of fashion. And Ezekiel, well, you'll have to read him and decide for yourselves.

Two people in today's lessons -- we'll start with Elijah.

Elijah didn't have a history of depression. His is called situational depression. Or maybe PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. You could surely expect that.

The prophets of the LORD, Elijah first among them, were at war with Ahab King of Israel and his Queen Jezebel. It was an ugly war. Prophets were massacred, the LORD's prophets by Jezebel's people, and then Baal's prophets by Elijah himself.

So Jezebel had a contract out on him, and he was hiding. In terror and trauma, without friends, without support, without safety, and in the wilderness, without water, he sat down under a bush, and said, Take me Lord; just kill me now. With that he fell asleep, hoping to not wake up.

There is a saying in suicide prevention. Suicide happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain. Two things about that saying are genius. First, it makes sense when survivors can't find some reason that seems "good enough." Sometimes people who die at their own hand don't have some immediate horrible event that explains the desperation of their act. Sometimes the last straw is just that, a straw. But it is the one last straw too many. Suicide happens when pain, whatever that pain is, on top of whatever else pain there already is, when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.

There was that time I could not install the software on my brand new HP printer, for which I had paid far more than I wanted. Now that's not a reason to commit suicide. I know that. But I was so close to the edge, a puff of wind could have taken me over. I screwed up my courage to make a phone call.

It was some guy sitting in a call center in Mumbai who saved my life that day. He stayed on the phone with me for an hour, talking about Indian cinema, while he patched into my printer and downloaded the repair.

Suicide happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain. See, the second thing about that saying, it offers hope. It gives us a strategy. Somebody you know is facing -- whatever it is, it's too much. Take me, Lord; just kill me now.

You don't have to be brilliant, solve some intractable problem, lift the weight of the world. You yourself helps. All kinds of things help. Here Elijah, while you were napping, I baked you a cake. Tell me your story. And after you fill up on carbs, take another nap. I'll clean up, and fix supper for you.

Rested, fed, supported, and heard, Elijah was pulled back from the edge, and had enough to go on.

Now the Gospel. The Gerasene demoniac appears to have had schizophrenia, at least psychosis. He lived on the streets, no clothes, you can almost smell him off the page. Hear him, too, when he talked to his demons. People with schizophrenia tell me it helps. When the demons call them horrible names and tell them to do horrible things, it helps to argue back. But it does scare others, to hear a smelly, dirty, homeless man angry, and shouting at the voices.

He never hurt anybody but himself. Mark says he would bruise himself with stones. But they put him in chains because? -- they were afraid.

You know, this week it occurred to me, I call him the Gerasene demoniac. That's what it says in my Bible, the headline across the top of the page, meaning the person from that part of the country who was possessed by demons.

Demoniac -- it's like calling somebody a schizophrenic. You know, that schizo downtown? Mental health advocate that I am, I know not to do that, not to name him by one part of him. Put the person first. A person with schizophrenia, not a schizophrenic.

It's on the page, but Gerasene demoniac is just the headline. The text itself, the Gospel writers don't call him Demoniac. Jesus doesn't.

Jesus asks him his name. Now it's the demons who answer. We never do learn him name. But Jesus recognizes the difference between the person and the symptoms And he treats them differently, the person and the symptoms. The symptoms he gets rid of. The person he clothes, and returns him to his community.

Respect. Jesus treats him with respect. Because Jesus knows who he is. He is a child of God.

I have a laminated card from NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness. It's about how to handle a mental illness crisis. When you know what to do, you don't have to be so scared. You can behave a lot better. And you can help. Just like knowing first aid.

The card lists behaviors that someone with a psychiatric illness might display, and the corresponding things that you, in response, need to do.

Someone with a psychiatric illness might have trouble with reality. So you need to be simple and truthful. Might be fearful, so you need to be calm; have poor judgement, so don't expect rational discussion; have trouble concentrating, so be brief and repeat; have changing emotions, so disregard the changes. Have little empathy for you, so recognize, it's not personal -- it's a symptom.

When I have used this card, I add an item that the original omitted. It comes out of my own experience. Someone with a psychiatric illness might feel shame. So you need to show respect.

The essential point here -- do what Jesus did. He recognized the symptom. And he respected the child of God.

That's the way he treats us all, fearful or not. In our right minds, or not. On our best behavior, or not. Children of God.

It's a hard thing, mental illness. We don't talk about it, because it scares us. But there is no bigger monster than silence.

The Bible is not silent. It gives us an opportunity, and it gives us resources. Faithful people can talk about the hard stuff. People of faith can talk about anything.

Well, yes and no. Sometimes faith fails, in the face of shame, and in the face of fear. In my darkest hours, my faith did fail. Our psalms today say, Put your trust in the Lord; for I will yet give thanks to the One who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

Well, I didn't. I didn't trust a God who, I could only believe, had let me down.

That was hard. Mental illness can take away so much. It can take away faith, memory, identity. I didn't know who I was, if I didn't have faith. I didn't know how to be a person without faith. But there it was.

There are psalms that put words to that confusion and despair. Most of them end on a word of hope, for I will yet give thanks to the One who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

At the time, it hurt to read those words. They seemed a lie.

But there is even a psalm for when we do not believe. Psalm 88 tells the story of despair, and it ends, Darkness is my only companion. That is the last line, the end. Darkness is my only companion. The Psalmist heard my truth, and spoke it, and let it be, let me be.

I wrote a friend I couldn't say the Daily Office anymore. I was having trouble even brushing my teeth. He answered, he couldn't help with the teeth, but not to fret -- he would do my praying for me.

You know what, that helped, to let go of praying for a while, knowing that even while I could not believe, still I was held within a believing community. That's who I was, part of the communion of saints.

And something else helped, Gospel music. Here is something I wrote in those days, about ten years ago:

The lament psalms persist in worship, and worship is how I persist. I listen to Gospel music. I sing along with those whose music it is. I do not have their faith. But I cannot dispute their testimony, what God has done for them, and the power they find in God to get through. I believe in them. I believe in the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.

Those whose ancestors survived the Middle Passage, survived slavery, survived Jim Crow, survived the Klan, those who still survive today, I don't know how they survive. But they assure me, and I listen to them sing to me:

Everything He said, in His word,
He will do it for you.
Every prophecy He gave, every promise He made,
He will do it for you.

I didn't believe the words. But the music carried me through.

The Psalms are music. They were written to be sung. Their poetry puts words to our deepest truths, our deepest loves, griefs, rejoicing, even rage, when our own words frighten us and fail. They give us voice, and put it to song.

Every hymn I chose this morning comes from the Psalms. It's all in there. Our stories are in here. Even when we can't speak our truth, and mental illness is just one of those truths we find hard to speak, we can find it here.

Whatever that truth is, we are held, we are respected, we are known as children of God.

So I do give thanks to the One who is the help of my countenance, and my God.  Amen.

painting of Elijah in the wilderness by Daniele de Volterra, c. 1550, in public domain
Flair from
medieval illustration of Jesus casting out demons, in public domain

photo of shadow by Cornava, used under GNU Free Documentation License

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