Our Opportunity to Become WISE
Matt 9:32-33 After they had gone away, a demon-possessed man who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.”
Matt 8:16 that evening they brought to him many who were possessed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and cured all who were sick.
Matt 8:28-32 When he came to the other side, to the region of the Gadarenes, two men possessed by demons came out of the tombs and met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go!” So they came out and entered the swine, and suddenly, the whole herd stampeded down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the water.
I don’t really know what to make of the stories of demons in the bible. Are they real in the way we tend to think of them as some kind of spiritual being that intends to go around tormenting people? Are they a construct that ancient people came up with to explain mental illness? Are they conditions that we can now explain with science that people used to only be able to attribute to spirits? I don’t know.
What I do know is that many of you, like myself, have experienced things like depression, anxiety, and/or addiction, things that take control of us, make us love things or people that are harmful, whisper lies about who we are in our ears when we’re alone. If demons are, perhaps, more about the ways we describe destructive things that control us, then maybe possession is less about some kind of horned spirit from the movies and more about being under the spell of something else inside ourselves.
There is something taught to us in seminary that says we should only share our scars with the congregation, not our wounds. What this means is that we should usually only share struggles and pain that we have had a chance to heal from, and not share about the things we are currently struggling with. This is meant to keep a healthy boundary that prevents people in pastoral positions from accidentally using the congregation as their therapist or spiritual care provider. There is nothing wrong with supporting your pastor through difficult times, but there is a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed that divides vulnerability and authenticity with codependency.
But there are some things that if we, as pastors and spiritual care providers, wait to share about until we are healed or have a safe distance from, then we will never share about it at all. Mental health can fall into this category. Chronic anxiety and depression may last for years or for the entirety of our lives. Neural divergences like ADHD and autism, simply don’t go away because they are the result of having a different brain structure. And if we don’t talk about it from the pulpit, then we risk the danger of giving the impression that we don’t struggle from these things and that is simply not true.
I have struggled with depression for so long that I don’t really remember a time that it wasn’t present in my life. I think somewhere before I was 25? I’m 40 now and through therapy and medication I am just now starting to feel relief. The worst part was that even though I knew I didn’t feel happy, well ever, I didn’t actually know what was going on. That’s the insidiousness of mental illness, when it creeps in over time you don’t really notice it from the inside because we relate to the world through our experiences, and when those experiences are filtered through mental illness we often can’t see its effect on us.
I also have ADHD. We have discovered a lot about ADHD, especially in the last decade, and we are learning that it has something to do with the structure of the prefrontal cortex and an inability to process dopamine correctly in our brain. The overly simplistic way to describe what happens in people with ADHD brains is that our brains don’t activate the way they are supposed to when they are supposed to. If you have ever left a computer or cellphone on unused, chances are they went into some kind of “sleep” mode where the processors slow down and screens turn off or put up a screen saver. It is a system that is meant to preserve the energy of the computer or cellphone.
Our brains, again in an overly simplistic explanation, do a similar thing. When we sit down to relax, our brains essentially go into an energy-saving mode and take a break along with our body. But when a typical person gets up to go do a task, the brain fires up and goes back into action mode ready to complete whatever task it is, whether it’s a chore, cooking, exercise, getting ready to leave the house, whatever. But this isn’t so with people with ADHD. If we are presented with a task that our brain has determined isn’t exciting, our brains go into sleep-mode as we try to complete that task, essentially making it nearly, if not totally impossible to complete the task in any reasonable manner. This in part is why some presentations of ADHD include hyperactivity, because it’s a way to keep the brain active and functioning close to a typical manner. It’s also why stimulants tend to be an effective treatment for ADHD, because they keep the brain in active mode when it’s supposed to be.
ADHD and depression often left me in a state of being paralyzed, as my depression made me feel like I didn’t want to do anything and my brain refused to go into active mode with tasks that I had to do, like my school work and chores. So I had this double-whammy of mental health struggles that I was constantly trying to will my way through. It felt like torture, but from the outside it looked like laziness. I was told it was laziness my whole life. Every year in grade school from 1st grade on included some variation of the phrase “Ryan is a pleasure to have in class but does not work up to expectations or his potential.” When you hear something so often and so consistently, of course you are going to eventually internalize that message and I did.
In this way I relate to the people in our passages that had something inside of them that exerted control of their mind and body as there were times that I just couldn’t will myself to do the work I needed to do. I wanted to do it, I knew the task was high priority, but I could not get my mind and body to cooperate. I don’t know if demons are real, but I know what it feels like to feel like you have some kind of foreign-feeling force preventing you from operating correctly. I know what it is to have intrusive thoughts whispering terrible things to me about myself about wasting my life and being a failure. And when we think about mental health struggles that cause us to feel out of control and tell ourselves terrible things about ourselves, is it really that far-fetched for us to understand why numerous cultures across time have said these ailments are the result of some kind of evil entity?
In spite of how awful I felt most of the time, I was afraid of what was on the other side, of who I was apart from my depression. I was, and still am at times, afraid of the process of healing. It felt like addressing my depression head on would cause me to explode, to erupt into an endless geyser of emotions. It felt like there was a single thread holding me together and that looking my depression straight in the face would snap that thread and everything I had been burying inside would come exploding out.
So is it any wonder that in some of the passages where Jesus comes in the presence of a demon-possessed person that the demon cried out at Jesus in fear and anger? After all, if a demon is the embodiment of loss of self-control and internalized hatred, Jesus is the exact opposite. Jesus is the ultimate liberator and loves us for exactly who we are and the demons flee from his radical acceptance and perfect love. But that isn’t where Jesus stopped, at driving out the demons.
In almost every passage that talks about people having demons driven out, that person is then restored to their community. They are able to leave their places of hiding, live among their peers, and actively participate in the life of the community. So these passages tell us a lot about evil and a lot about Jesus. Evil lies to us, tells us we aren’t worthy of love, that we need to hide our ugliness and isolate ourselves from other people and especially God. Jesus tells us the truth, that we are beloved children of God, that when God created us God looked at us and called us good, which, by the way, in the Genesis story of creation when God is calling things “good”, the word is better understood as amazing, awesome, incredible, so when God looks at you God calls you amazing, awesome, incredible.
Therapy and medication have worked wonders to help me heal, but there are some things that will never be fixed in this life. My depression has been lifting a lot over the past year. I have found myself laughing a lot more than I have in nearly 20 years. But my ADHD will be with me forever, it is literally hardwired into my brain.
There are some mental health struggles that will be present in us or in our neighbors for our whole lives, and those same struggles will be present in people on Earth foreseeably until the new earth and new heaven come. But even so, we can continue to speak the truth and show love to each other, to remind each other that no matter what we are going through, we are the beloved children of God and God calls each of us amazing, awesome, incredible and deems us worthy of the perfect love of Jesus. And each time we practice showing the love of Jesus to each other, it chips away at the power of the things that try to control us.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and John Hopkins Medicine, about 25% of adults in the USA have mental illness at any given time, and 50% of adults will experience a mental illness at some point in their life. It is important to destigmatize both mental illness and treatments like medicine and therapy, especially in the church where people come to seek peace and healing.
One of the ways our church is currently exploring creating an environment of mental health support, is beginning the process of becoming a WISE designated congregation through partnership with the Mental Health Network of the national body of the United Church of Christ. WISE stands for welcoming, inclusive, supportive, and engaged. So through this process we will learn what it takes to welcome, include, support, and engage with people who have mental health struggles, which will culminate in having the opportunity to officially adopt the WISE covenant through a congregational vote. A small part of the 2015 WISE Resolution of the General Synod reads:
WHEREAS, most people believe that mental illnesses are rare and “happen to someone else,” when in fact, mental illnesses are common and widespread with an estimated 61.5 million Americans (1 in 4) experiencing some form of mental illness in a given year;
WHEREAS, there continues to be strong stigma and discrimination in society against people with these brain disorders in housing, employment, social relationships, (including how they are treated in our churches);
WHEREAS, the church is called to be a community that breaks through fear and isolation to offer love, hope, care and healing;
WHEREAS, Jesus showed us the way to reach out to those who are ill or marginalized to offer companionship, compassion and support;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Thirtieth General Synod encourages United Church of Christ congregations to adopt covenants to be WISE (Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, Engaged) Congregations for Mental Health.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Thirtieth General Synod encourages congregations to work to eradicate stigma around mental illnesses/brain disorders, and to offer support to persons with and those impacted by mental health challenges, including their family members, loved ones and others concerned.
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the Thirtieth General Synod encourages advocacy by all settings of the church for broader and more just access to quality mental health services including private and public insurance coverage. This advocacy includes services for all persons with mental illness who are falling through the fraying safety net, especially persons in jails/prisons, and persons who are homeless.
It is important to love each other unconditionally with the love of Christ, and to support each other through the challenges of all forms of mental struggles, and becoming a WISE congregation is one way we could do this. It is through the sharing of this love and reaffirming each other continuously that we are beloved children of God that we can, along with support and proper medical care, cast out the demons from our lives and live in a liberated community with one-another.