Moving Towards the Other.

not your enemies

These last few days, I have been giving into the social media temptation of sticking my nose in places that it has no business being in, and is not going to make any difference by being there. Between halftime shows, shambolic political processes, failed electoral counts, ongoing denominational trouble in the #UMC, disappointing speeches, disappointing reactions to speeches, and the undeniable evidence of deep-rooted division in so many areas of society, I have felt burdened, wearied, and entirely mentally, spiritually, and emotionally exhausted.

Part of my exasperation with it all is that is it so hard to know how to make a difference. It is hard to know what the place of a rather ordinary preacher like me actually is in it all.  Is the preacher to be passively silent?  Is he or she to be more activist in response to the world around his or herself?  How does the preacher, a disciple of Jesus Christ, live out his or her call in these days?

This morning, I was sat at the local coffee shop waiting on a parishioner that did not manage to make our arranged get-together.  Another parishioner was in the coffee shop at the same time and so I said hello.  He asked me what I would be preaching on this week at church.  “Prayer.” I said. “Three weeks talking about mental health is probably enough.” (referencing the fact that last Sunday we finished a three-week series on the theme of faith and mental health). His face told me that three weeks had maybe not been enough on that topic for him. He confirmed my suspicion when he spoke: “I wanted to come and talk to you about some of that.” We kept talking and he shared some of his experience with me.  I told him I would love to take time to listen some more if that would be helpful for him. He agreed it would.  I assured him that I cannot fix him in any way, but that I am more than willing to “sit in the hole” with him and listen for a while inasmuch as that is helpful for him.

In being present with my parishioner in that moment, I was reminded of what it is that a rather ordinary preacher like me is to do in this screwed up age we are living in.  You see, I could try to change minds with clever, fact-based argument and debate.  Or I could retweet the words of that person that I agree with on a matter, as a means of using their words to express my own angst. Or I could try and shout down the loud voices of the other side.  I could protest in some kind of appropriate way at the right moment in the right place in an attempt to make my voice heard.  I could do all those things and they might well make some subtle difference here and there, or they might encourage someone, somewhere, in some way.  But is that what is that really what the rather ordinary preacher has been called and ordained to do?  As I ask that question, my thoughts race back to June 2012 and the words of my ordination service.

The following are the words used that day from liturgy used in the Irish Methodist Church ordination service each year:

“Beloved in Christ, the Church is God’s holy people, the Body of Christ, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.

All who are received into the Church by Baptism are called to proclaim the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ our Saviour, and to serve him in the Church and the world.

God has called you into the Order of Presbyters among his people.

In His name you are

            to preach by word and deed the Gospel of God’s grace;

            to declare God’s forgiveness of sins to all who are penitent;

  to baptize, confirm, and to preside at the celebration of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood;

            to lead God’s people in worship, prayer, and service;

            to minister Christ’s love and compassion;

            to serve others, in whom you serve the Lord himself.

These things are your common duty and delight.  In them you are to watch over one another in love.

In all things, give counsel and encouragement to those whom Christ entrusts to your care.  Pray without ceasing.  Work with joy in the Lord’s service.  Let no-one suffer hurt through your neglect.

This ministry will make great demands upon you and those close to you, yet in all this, the Holy Spirit will sustain you by his grace.”

Today, I woke up discouraged, exhausted, and exasperated by what I am seeing and hearing in the world.  I felt helpless to do anything that would make a difference.  But then, in that rather chance encounter, I was reminded of what I am called and ordained to in this world – a life of being present with others, being willing to enter the pain and darkness that exists in their lives, and to listen.  A life of embodying the good news of God’s great love, boundless grace, and imperishable hope for all people.

All people.

You see, a big part of my frustration and exasperation with the world these last few weeks has been the inability of people to see the world the way I see it.  I have let myself fall into the trap of thinking that my way alone is the right way for all people in all times and in all places.  How arrogant! And how limiting in terms of my ability to answer the call on my life!  Something has to change in me with regard to this, so here is what I will be seeking to make my reality in the days ahead during what could be a very rough year.

  1. As I encounter people, I will do so from a starting point that understands that they are doing their best with the tools they have been given. We have all inherited and subsequently developed the world views we operate within. Some worldview I love, and some I loathe.  But I have yet to meet a person who is not truly doing their best to operate well from the standpoint of their world view. So, I will do my best to understand they are doing their best
  2. I will remember that those whose worldviews are different to my own are not bad people, and that their worldviews, as much as I might disagree with them, have been considered and arrived at with as much integrity as my own. The powerful of the world continue to stoke fear and suspicion of ‘the other’ – those who see the world in a different way – and many of us get duped and play right into that game with the result that we demonize the other and end up being so frustrated by the other that relationships break down and we cease communication.  I will refuse to do that.  I know many people who view the world differently from me, and I still love them. Many of my friends think differently on social issues, on theology, philosophy.  They think differently, but they are not bad people.  In fact, they are good people offering so much to the world by living their lives well, and I still love to spend time with them because they are my friends.  I refuse to demonize my friends simply because they are seeing and interpreting the world through the tint of a different lens.
  3. I will move towards ‘the other.’ The way of our world in recent years seems to encourage staying firmly in one’s own camp; to retreat to the company of those who see the world the same way one sees it.  The negative impact of doing so is two-fold:
    1. We end up never talking to anyone, about these things, who might hold a different view to the one we hold ourselves. This means that we end up never having our own worldview challenged and tested.  We never have to defend it. That’s unhealthy.
    2. We create enemies of those who are not in our camp for no other reason than that they think differently than we do. This is remarkably unhealthy for us as individuals, and even more so for our society

So I will move towards those who exist in a different camp from my own.  I will refuse to wait in the middle for them to come meet me, and choose instead to step over the invisible line that has been drawn in the sand to meet with them.  Why?  Because that’s what God did for me.  In Jesus, God moved towards me.  In Jesus, God stepped over the line.  In Jesus, God refused to wait for me to come to Him.  It follows that if I am to be a disciple of Jesus it will involve me stepping over the line and following him in moving to the other.  As Rep. John Lewis said at the National Prayer Breakfast this week “We must believe in one another, we must never give up on our fellow human beings.” I refuse to give up on my fellow human beings.

In America, and other parts of the western world, we are speeding down to the road to ruin because we continue to give into the temptation of demonizing others.  Continuing down this road will leave us irreparably divided, and as Jesus said himself, “If a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25).  I refuse to be a part of the continued division of our communities, nation and world, and I will double down on my personal efforts to be a relationship builder and reconciler in my world.

You Are Not Alone.

You Are Not AloneIn January 2020, I preached a three week series on the topic of faith and mental health.  Over the course of the three week series I broached the topics of addiction, suicide, and depression/anxiety.  Below is the text of the second sermon of the series entitled, “No Way Out,” which looked at the subject of suicide.

The most difficult part of preparing sermons to preach into these areas was ensuring that they remained as sermons and did not become mere public service announcements. I hope I managed that.

As with all my sermons, what you are going to find below is the general script I followed.  The script will always be close to what was finally preached in the sermon, but there also will always be those last minute edits, and inspired moments when something was added to the script.  To get those, you might want to check out the video of the sermon, which you can find here.

Each of these sermons was opened with video of an interview I had recorded with members of our church who are mental health professionals. The one for this sermon can be heard in the sermon video above or it can be seen on its own here.

Thank you for taking the time to read.

___________________________________________________________________

You Are Not Alone.

We have reached the last of our three week series on faith and mental health.  In the last two weeks we have explored the areas of addiction and suicide.  My hope is that we have had our collective awareness raised as to the sheer volume of people in America who are live life in an on-going battle with their mental health.  I have shared numbers and stats with you to paint a picture of the numbers of people around us who battle addiction and who are impacted by suicide.

Another hope in preaching this series has been that not only will we know the numbers about this stuff, but that we will take a moment to think about mental health struggles in the context of our faith.  I hope we have realized in the last couple of weeks that no-one is immune to mental health difficulties.  If one thing has been confirmed to me by the conversations I have had at the door after worship these last couple of weeks, it has been that this stuff is as real for people of faith as it is for anyone else.  Our Christianity does not protect us, or those closest to us from the possibility of having our own struggles and issues mentally.

Finally, my hope is that we have taken the elephant in the room and we have started a conversation about it.  The stigma around these things is colossal and it creates a barrier to ourbeing a help to one another.  Friends, my hope is that you know now more than you ever knew before that your church is a place where it is indeed safe to seek help if you are struggling in life.  Churches have had a reputation in times gone by of being places where everyone looks their best and appears as if there is nothing to worry about in their lives.  I hope you know that your church is a place that understands that real life happens, that struggle is real, and that being part of a grace filled family matters if we are to face the struggles.

This week I want to start the conversation about depression and anxiety.

  • As of 2017, 300 million people around the world have depression, according to the World Health Organization.
  • According to datafrom the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 17.3 million adults in the United States—equaling 7.1% of all adults in the country—have experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.
  • 11 million U.S. adults experienced an episode that resulted in severe impairment in the past year.
  • Nearly 50% of all people diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
  • It’s estimated that 15% of the adult population will experience depression at some point in their lifetime.

Here are the most recent depression statistics in children and adolescents:

  • 1 million young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year in the United States.
  • 2% to 3% of children ages 6 to 12 may have serious depression.
  • 20% of adolescent girls have experienced a major depressive episode.
  • 8% of adolescent boys have experienced a major depressive episode.
  • 71% of adolescents who experienced a major depressive episode in the past year experienced a severe impairment.
  • 60% of children and adolescents with depression are not getting any type of treatment.
  • 19% of children with depression saw a health care professional for treatment.

Anxiety

  • An estimated 19.1% of U.S. adults had any anxiety disorder in the past year.
  • Past year prevalence of any anxiety disorder was higher for females (23.4%) than for males (14.3%).
  • An estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives
  • GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, yet only 43.2% are receiving treatment.
  • An estimated 31.9% of adolescents had any anxiety disorder.
  • Of adolescents with any anxiety disorder, an estimated 8.3% had severe impairment.
  • The prevalence of any anxiety disorder among adolescents was higher for females (38.0%) than for males (26.1%).

Friends, these numbers are real.  Depression and anxiety are real, and according to the numbers, the chances are that there are many of you here this morning who know that already because you have suffered your own bouts of depression and/or anxiety.

There are any number of places we could go to in the Scriptures to read about the biblical reality of depression and anxiety.  King Saul in the Old Testament is a primary example of someone who was crippled with anxiety.  The prophet Jeremiah is known as a prophet who could provide a biblical case study in depression.  You have heard me talk often about the words of the Psalmist and how they speak clearly of the struggles of this life.

Psalm 88 is one such Psalm.  In the first four verses that we read this morning we meet a poet who seems paralyzed by struggle.  We read testimony of an individual who seems so lost, so isolated, so helpless in this world that the only place left for him to turn is to God.  “When I cry out to you, God, let my prayer come before you.  Incline your ear to my cry.”  This is the plea of one who longs to be heard by the Almighty.  This is the prayer of one who feels like there is nowhere else to turn.  We have no idea what is going on in the life of the poet at this point, but we do know that he is in a state of desperation that has left him asking God to bend down close, to incline God’s ear so that God might hear his prayer.  It is a plea.  It is a struggling Psalmist asking God to come close and listen.

Why is the Psalmist so desperate?  He says that his soul is full of struggles and that his life is drawing near to Sheol.  Sheol was known in the Psalmist’s culture as the place of death, the grave, the abode of the dead.  Sheol was understood as the place from which there was no escape.  A dark place.  A bleak place in which there was no light or hope.  For the Psalmist to describe his plight as one of being close to Sheol, he was saying that he was close to the place of utter isolation and loneliness.  He continues by saying that he is like one who has gone down to the pit, like one who has no help.  These are the words of one who feels alone, helpless and who is desperate for help from someone.  I think the Psalmist is describing his own experience of depression.

Why do I think that?  Because when I read those words I can relate them to my own experience.  Early in 2015 I started to notice that something was different within me.  Margaret and I had moved to the USA again just over a year before – moving house, changing the continent we lived on, and starting a new job.  It was a stressful time.  It was also during that year that I had spent much time in chronic back pain, and then went through a surgery to have the issue repaired. It had been a big year for us.

Everything appeared just fine on the outside, but honestly I was feeling lost and alone in the world.  I was feeling like I had no clue who I was or what I was doing in ministry. Without warning, I would find my thoughts drifting into what felt like empty, blank spaces. I spoke to Margaret and said I did not know what was going on but that I just felt like I had lost my mojo in life.  I had never been depressed.  I had never been anxious about anything in my life.  I had pretty much had a worry-free existence so far, and here I was feeling absolutely blind-sided by this complete sense of emptiness within me.  I called my ministry mentor, who listened to me for a while and then spoke these words: “Do you think you are depressed?”  I had not thought of it, but as soon as she asked me that question, tears welled up in my eyes and started to roll down my face.  Depression?  Me? No way.  Have you seen these shoulders?  They are big enough to carry anything.  Have you seen this life?  It is good – I have no reason whatsoever to be depressed.  To cut a long story short, I eventually went to see my doctor and was diagnosed with some mild depression.

So I think that the Psalmist is describing a bout of depression in his life because I recognize the desperation with which the Psalmist is crying out to God.

Depression and anxiety are real in our world, and they were real in the world of the Bible.  So how does Christian faith speak to the matter of depression and anxiety in our world?

The first thing that I need to state with utter clarity is this: suffering with depression is not a sign that an individual is lacking enough faith in God, and neither is it indicative of a faith that is weaker than someone else’s faith.  You may think it strange that I would say that, but I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time a Christian has told me that when they have spoken in church or small groups of feeling depressed, someone has told them that they just need to have more faith or that their faith is not good or strong enough.  That is one of the most ludicrous and damaging things we can speak to one another.  A quick look through any number of information sources will tell you that depression and anxiety have their roots not in the presence or lack of faith in an individual’s life, but rather they tend to arise out of a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.

All that being said, Christian faith does have much to speak to the soul who feels lost, lonely, and paralyzed by depression and anxiety, and primarily what our faith has to speak to our depression, anxiety, and all the other mental health matters we have discussed is this: you are not alone.

To the soul who can’t shake that feeling of being utterly isolated in the world, the God who moved close to humanity in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ says I am with you.  God says I am with you and I will never leave you nor forsake you.  To Isaac, God said “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”  He said the same to Moses, and to Joshua, and to all of Israel through the prophets such as Isaiah, and Jeremiah.  The angel Gabriel said to a frightened girl called Mary that she was not to be afraid for God was with her. Jesus said to his disciples, as he commissioned them to go in to all the world, that he would be with them to the end of the age.  The enduring message of the gospel is the message of a God who refuses to leave us.  So to the one who is depressed or crippled with anxiety; to the one who feels utterly alone this morning, I say to you that the God who created you and who knows you inside out sees you and states clearly that you are not alone.

You are not alone because God is with you.  And you are not alone because God has called and appointed the family of faith to be with you.  In Mark chapter four we meet a paralyzed man who is being carried by four friends to see Jesus, in the hope that Jesus will offer healing.  Of course, this story is one about the healing power of Jesus, and Mark is using it to set up another conversation after the healing between Jesus and some of the scribes who took issue with Jesus offering forgiveness of sins.  Of course this passage is all about those things, but we must also pay attention to the friends of the paralyzed man and what they are willing to do to ensure that their friend has the opportunity to be cared for by Jesus.  You see Jesus had drawn a crowd that day.  A crowd so big that there was no more room for anyone to get anywhere near close to Jesus.  The only way they could get their buddy to Jesus was to remove the roof above Jesus.  Yes, you read it correctly.  You heard it correctly.  These four friends got up on the roof of the building in which Jesus was teaching and they started to remove it just above where Jesus was so that they could lower their friend through the hole and get him right in front of Jesus.

It is as crazy as it sounds – but it is the kind of crazy we can skip over and miss when we want to skip to the healing power of Jesus in this familiar story, or to the conversation Jesus has with the scribes after the healing.  We can miss that in this paralyzed man’s injured state he had friends that were willing to do whatever it took to ensure that he would be in the best position to be ministered to by Jesus.

Friends – we are not alone because the God who moves close is with us and promises to never leave nor forsake us.  Whether we can feel it or not.  Whether we know it or not.  Whether we believe it or not.  The one who created us and knows us inside out; who knows every thought and every feeling; the one who knew isolation and desperation himself is with us and remains with us in all things and through all things – even the crippling, paralyzing loneliness and despair of depression and anxiety.

And we are not alone because this same god who is with us in and through all things is embodied in God’s gathered community of people – the church family.  We do not get it right all the time.  We sometimes say really dumb things that harm more than heal.  We are flawed and broken and in need of healing ourselves, all of us…but we gather in the name of the God who is with us and we are called to love one another and embody the presence of God for one another.  That means that to the best of our ability we will walk close by those who are struggling.  That means we will listen without judgement and we will do our best to imagine what it would be like to walk a mile in your shoes.  We will listen, we will empathize, and we will walk alongside those who suffer and struggle and feel entirely alone, and we will remind them that none of us are alone in this world.  We will remind them that we are a people captivated by love and called by the God of love to willingly and eagerly walk with the broken, lost, and struggling in this world; to walk alongside them in the name of the God who is with them, who can restore them and bring them through the dark night of the soul they are experiencing.

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The sermon closed the series.  To mark the end of the series, I invited my colleague, Drew, to take a set prayer we had found in preparation for this series, and make it applicable for our church family.  He, as he always does, did an excellent job.  The prayer is below.  The words in bold were spoken by the entire congregation:

God,

When we feel nervous, and the walls close in, and too many people are too close, and everyday noises are too loud, and every light is too bright, and all we can do is plan our panicked escape from the situation we are in…

God help us…We are not alone.

When sadness and depression pull us down like a lead weight, making it hard to move, hard to concentrate, hard to find motivation, hard to be alive, just hard…

God help us…We are not alone.

When we can’t help but burst into tears, and we learn the difference between crying and weeping, and the weeping won’t stop, and we lose hope that we will ever feel hopeful again…

God help us…We are not alone.

When information comes at us in blasts that we can’t make sense of, and it seems like someone keeps randomly “changing the channel” when we try to focus, and it feels impossible to learn or keep up with what’s going on around us…

God help us…We are not alone.

When we get so revved that we want to take on the world, and leap tall buildings, and outrun freight trains and take on too many major projects at once, and stay up all night for days on end, and the only thing we know we can’t do is slow ourselves down, until we crash out of control…

God help us…We are not alone.

When voices inside our minds constantly intrude upon our lives, and when they won’t stop and they confuse our thoughts and make it impossible to be with other people, let alone have any kind of real conversation…

God help us…We are not alone.

When all we can see is a world that is out to get us, and we get stuck believing that some grand conspiracy is designed to hurt us, or ruin us, or kill us, and we believe that only our constant vigilance can save us, if anything can…

God help us…We are not alone.

When we simply don’t know how out of touch other people think our thoughts are…

God help us…We are not alone.

When we feel completely isolated and alone, longing for social connections we cannot make…

God help us…We are not alone.

When we feel utter despair, and we see more reasons to end our lives than to keep living…

God help us…We are not alone.

When we strive with best intentions to stop addictions that are ruining our lives, and we try our best again and again, but we can’t resist, and we end up over and over again at the same helpless place that we would give anything to avoid…

God help us…We are not alone.

When our thoughts jumble and things we thought we knew slip away, and we feel helpless, powerless, and scared, for the moment and for the future…

God help us…We are not alone.

Amen

No Way Out.

No Way OutIn January 2020, I preached a three week series on the topic of faith and mental health.  Over the course of the three week series I broached the topics of addiction, suicide, and depression/anxiety.  Below is the text of the second sermon of the series entitled, “No Way Out,” which looked at the subject of suicide.

The most difficult part of preparing sermons to preach into these areas was ensuring that they remained as sermons and did not become mere public service announcements. I hope I managed that.

As with all my sermons, what you are going to find below is the general script I followed.  The script will always be close to what was finally preached in the sermon, but there also will always be those last minute edits, and inspired moments when something was added to the script.  To get those, you might want to check out the video of the sermon, which you can find here.

Each of these sermons was opened with video of an interview I had recorded with members of our church who are mental health professionals. The one for this sermon can be heard in the sermon video above or it can be seen on its own here.

Thank you for taking the time to read.

___________________________________________________________________

No Way Out

It was 2012 and I had been the pastor of Shankill Methodist Church in Belfast for a couple of years since my commissioning as a Methodist minister.  The church was situated in a working class inner city community and was a small but close unit of people.  David would come to church pretty much every week with his two boys.  Together they would sit with his sister and her daughter on the second row of the church on the right hand side as I would look down from the pulpit.  David was quiet, but always pleasant as he greeted me on the way out of church every week.

“How are you?” I would ask each week.  And regular small talk would ensue.  I would say “God bless you.” And that would be that until we would see each other the next week.  Until that one Sunday.  We had our normal conversation as David and the boys walked out of the church that day.

“How are you, David?”

“I’m doing well, Charlie.” He said.

“I’ll see you next week then.”

“Yep.  See you then, Charlie.”

I did not get to see David the next week.  Instead I preached at his funeral.  David had gone home from church that day and decided that what was going on in his life was just too much to bear.  David died that day from suicide.

Just like we said about the problem of addiction last week, suicide is increasing in our society and times.

  • In 2017, there were 47,173 recorded suicides, up from 42,773 in 2014, according to the CDC
  • In April 2016, the CDC released data showing that the suicide rate in the United States had hit a 30-year high, and later in June 2018, released further data showing that the rate has continued to increase and has increased in every U.S. state except Nevada since 1999.
  • On average, there are 123 suicides per day.
  • A person dies by suicide roughly every 12 minutes in the United States.
  • White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2016.
  • The rate of suicide is highest in middle age—white men in particular.

Suicide is a problem within our military personnel.  A 2009 U.S. Army report indicates military veterans have double the suicide rate of non-veterans, and more active-duty soldiers have died from suicide than in combat in the Iraq War (2003–2011) and War in Afghanistan (2001–present).

It is also a problem among college age students.  In the college population, suicide is the second highest cause of death.

Among LGBTQ youth and adults in the U.S. attempted suicide rates are three times higher than national averages.

And those who suffer with chronic pain are twice as likely to attempt suicide compared with those without chronic pain.

Suicide is an issue in our society.  It is an issues in our community and it is an issue that has touched the lives of members of our church family.

I know individuals who have attempted suicide or been very close to it.  As I listen to their stories I can tell you that these are individuals who feel utterly alone and completely bereft of hope in life.  They speak of feeling as though they have no purpose in life and no direction for their futures.  They speak of feeling cornered by life.  Stuck.  Feeling like they have no way out.

I know families who have lost their dear ones to suicide.  As I listen to them I can tell you that suicide leaves a unique pain for those family members.  They are left with all the pain of loss and grief that could be expected in such unexpected and  tragic circumstances. They are left with questions that they will never have the answer to.  They are left with shame thrust upon them by the stigma around suicide.  They are left lonely and distanced from the friends who just have no clue what to say to them or how to care well for them after such a loss.

One of the things that has been taught and handed on regarding suicide is that those who die by suicide will be kept out of heaven. This seems to have been a teaching of the church for a long, long time.  I can remember talking with a friend once in the early years of my faith journey.  Brian was not a Christian but he liked to think he knew a lot about the Christian faith.  Somehow this topic came up in a conversation one evening and he tried to assure me that suicide is a sin that would close the door of heaven to an individual.  I asked him to tell me where I would find that in the Scripture.  He was unable to show me.  This is one of those half truths that we have received and assumed to be correct, but I want to state clearly to you this morning that I do not at all believe this to be true and that it really has no strong basis in Scripture at all.  Dr. Clay Smith, a Baptist Pastor from Sumter S.C. speaking to this very point states: “The manner of a person’s death does not determine their relationship with God. When a Jesus follower chooses to end his or her life, I think Jesus meets them with a mixture of sadness, because they have arrived at heaven early, and compassion, because he understands their pain.”  Perhaps the apostle Paul puts it best at the end of Romans Chapter 8 when he says these words:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Suicide is on the increase in our times, but it is by no means a new phenomenon.  In the Scripture we read of several instances in which individuals die by suicide.  Perhaps the most well-known are the story of King Saul in the Old Testament and then that of Judas in the New Testament.  In the reading we shared in this morning from 1st Kings we read of Elijah and his own deep struggle.  Elijah has had quite the run of events in the previous chapters of the book. He has been fed miraculously in times of drought with ravens bringing him food and meat and he has drank from the Wadi Cherith.  He has been instrumental in reviving the life of a widows son who had become so ill that there was no breath in him.  Elijah has stood up to King Ahab.  He has called down fire from heaven in front of 450 prophets of Baal and shown himself as a prophet of the one, true God.  He had been successful, victorious, and close with God and yet when his life is threatened by Jezebel he feels utterly alone. He runs to the wilderness and stops under a broom tree, and says those words to God:  “It is enough; now O Lord take away my life for I am no better than my ancestors.”

Having been so successful, and seemingly so full of the power and presence of God, Elijah is suddenly left feeling isolated and helpless.  He is left feeling that there is no way out.

We see similar sentiments of desperation in the words of the Psalmist too.  We could land on any number of lament Psalms that were written to communicate the “no way out” feelings, the struggle, and the desperation that humans experience at times in life’s journey but this morning I wanted to stop for a while in Psalm 40.  This song opens with the lyrics:

1 I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 40 is a song of the Psalmist’s testimony and ongoing journey of deep struggle and subsequent recovery in the Lord. “I was down in the pit and you lifted me up.  My footsteps were firm then and I could stride forward on sure ground.  You put a new song in my heart and I did not hold back from singing it.  I sung it and I told the story of my rescue.

As the Psalmist writes this song and as we read further along in it, it almost feels like the Psalmist is bargaining with God, giving God motive to act again in his life.  Almost as if he is saying: “Hey…you up there…I was down that one time in my life…like really down..deep in the hole…and you rescued me.  You rescued me and put a new song in my heart which I sung at the top of my voice.  I’m here to tell you that I am in that hole again right now and I need you to act again.  Don’t withhold your mercy from me, God.  Do not delay.”

Psalm 40 is a remembrance of a previous rescue as well as being a request for a repeat of that rescue.  It is a song about an individual who found himself in the pit of despair, but by the hand and power of God came out of it and was given a new song to sing.  This is a Psalm that declares the power of God to meet the individual right where he or she is at and join them in their deepest, darkest, and most lonely moments.  God joins us there in the pit and then lifts us out at just the right time.  This is a psalm that laments the present reality of the Psalmist, but it also acknowledges the power of God to rescue the despairing.

In our times we are seeing a continued increase in rates and instances of suicide, and I contend that this is because more and more individuals in our fast-paced, look after number one world actually find themselves to be existing in their own pits of despair.  It is quite unbelievable really.  I mean we are more connected in the world than we ever have been and yet the cry rising out of the pit is one of isolation and loneliness.  We have more opportunities that we can count in this world, and more resources to help us take those opportunities, and yet the cry rising out of the pit is one of hopelessness.

What are we to do with this?

I suggest we listen to the words of the Psalmist this morning.  I suggest we listen to them and find in them divine hope.

We listen to the Psalmist as he describes a God who is willing to climb in to the pit of despair, and loneliness and hopelessness and sit there with us to bring comfort and company.

We listen to the Psalmist as he describes a God who will not only climb into the pit and sit with us, but who is able and powerful to lift those that are struggling up out of the pit and set their feet upon solid ground.

We listen to the Psalmist and we encounter a God who can take the dirges that dominate and drown out so much in our lives, and can turn them into new songs for our hearts to sing.

So we listen to the Psalmist and we recognize hope in even the most dark and desolate places of our thoughts, and we recognize that this hope is embodied in a merciful God who is mighty to save and restore, and who is creative and loving enough to put a new song in our hearts.

So what do we do with all this?  In a world in which so many seem to be stuck in their own pits of despair, what are the people of God do with the hope of God?

Like I say, we listen to the Psalmist, we hear of a hopeful and powerful God who climbs into the pit with those who hurt and lifts them out.  But we must do more than simply hear a message of hope and internally acknowledge its truth.  Once we recognize that God has climbed into the pits of despair that individuals may find themselves in, we make the choice to follow God into that place.  We follow God into the places of hurt in our world and we become willing to sit a while with those who are struggling and we embody the truth that they are not alone, that they matter, that their lives are not without purpose, and that you are willing to sit with them and help them see that there is hope for a different tomorrow in their lives.  We follow God into those spaces and we become the hands and the feet and the embodiment of Godly hope in a hurting world, and we help those who are hurting become those who are lifted up out of the pit, to become those who have a new song placed in their hearts to sing.

Perhaps you are struggling today.  perhaps you have come to church this morning but if you are honest you feel like you are stuck in your own pit of despair.  If that is you today – I want you to hear clearly the truth that God is there with you already.  If you are here today and you have found yourself having suicidal thoughts, I want you to hear clearly that God is with you, that God is for you, that God loves you dearly and deeply, and that God holds out for you the hope of a new and different tomorrow.

Or maybe you know someone that is hurting today.  Maybe you know someone that seems stuck in their pit of despair.  If you do, I invite you to follow God into that pit and to sit with your loved one a while.  In doing so you will remind them that they are loved, that they matter and have worth, and that there is always hope.

Remind them that this way out is actually no way out at all.

And then, perhaps, we will be able to join together in the singing of that old hymn:

“My hope is built on nothing less,

Than Jesus blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But Holy trust in Jesus name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand,

All other ground is sinking sand.

 

 

 

The Midnight Church

Midnight ChurchIn January 2020, I preached a three week series on the topic of faith and mental health.  Over the course of the three week series I broached the topics of addiction, suicide, and depression/anxiety.  Below is the text of the opening sermon of the series entitled, “The Midnight Church,” which looked at addiction.

The most difficult part of preparing sermons to preach into these areas was ensuring that they remained as sermons and did not become mere public service announcements. I hope I managed that.

As with all my sermons, what you are going to find below is the general script I followed.  The script will always be close to what was finally preached in the sermon, but there also will always be those last minute edits, and inspired moments when something was added to the script.  To get those, you might want to check out the video of the sermon, which you can find here.

Each of these sermons was opened with video of an interview I had recorded with members of our church who are mental health professionals. The one for this sermon can be heard in the sermon video above or it can be seen on its own here.

Thank you for taking the time to read.

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The Midnight Church

Mental health and the struggle that can exist in our headspace is one of those things we hear about often in our world.  We hear about the mental health struggles of celebrities.  Perhaps we see it up close in our own lives or those of our close family. And yet, even though we hear it so much, there is still so much stigma attached to talking about mental health. Embarrassment, shame, confusion, fear of the unknown around the topic of mental health are all reasons that mental health is the elephant in the room.

Thankfully, that stigma is starting to be broken down bit by bit, and at Memorial we want to play our part in that by taking a few weeks to talk about faith and mental health.  Today, and for the next two weeks we are going to spend time thinking through three specific topics: addiction, suicide, and depression/anxiety.  These are three topics that impact or have impacted many of us directly or indirectly.  My intention in these three weeks threefold.  First, I hope that these services are pastoral in their nature – caring and nurturing of the people called Methodist gathered here at Memorial.  My desire is that in all we say and do in these services you will sense deep care that is rooted and grounded in the unconditional love of God for all people.

Second, my hope is that what will be said will be laced with gospel hope.  We are resurrection people who believe that every life and every story can be redeemed by the power of God’s great love as we know it through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.  So my hope is also that what you hear in these weeks ahead is good news of the imperishable hope of God for every situation

Third, my hope is that these services will also challenge us collectively as a church to ask how we can best come alongside those who are struggling.

Finally, I want to state very clearly to you that I am no mental health expert.  I am not medically qualified to speak to these issues and so I will not.  I am not a qualified therapist either, and so I will not comment on that area either.  I am a pastor/theologian and I will speak of what I can from that area.

In order to include that expert voice, we have invited our friend and brother in ministry, Rev. David Moenning.  David will lead seminars on Wednesday nights for the next three weeks, looking at the same topics I am addressing on Sunday mornings.  He is a qualified and licensed therapist, who practices in Jacksonville, and he will bring expertise and experience to those conversations each week. I hope you will be able to join us.

I also realize that some of this stuff might just be plain old hard or traumatic for you to listen to.  It might raise a memory for you, or just be too close to home right now.  Our Stephen Ministers have all be trained in sitting with those who are troubled will be available during our services these three weeks.  In the sanctuary they will be in the prayer chapel, and in Maxwell Hall they will be in the Blue Room.  They will also be available after each worship service for prayer, as they are every week.

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Once there was a man who was such a golf addict that he was neglecting his job. Frequently he would call in sick as an excuse to play.

One morning, after making his usual call to the office, an angel up above spotted him on the way to the golf course and decided to teach him a lesson. “If you play golf today, you will be punished,” the angel whispered in his ear.

Thinking it was only his conscience, which he had successfully whipped in the past, the fellow just smiled. “No,” he said, “I’ve been doing this for years. No one will ever know. I won’t be punished.”

The angel said no more and the fellow stepped up to the first tee where he promptly whacked the ball 300 yards straight down the middle of the fairway. Since he had never driven the ball more than 200 yards, he couldn’t believe it. Yet, there it was. And his luck continued. Long drives on every hole, perfect putting. By the ninth hole he was six under par and was playing near-perfect golf. The fellow was walking on air.

He wound up with an amazing 61, about 30 strokes under his usual game. Wait until he got back to the office and told them about this! But, suddenly, his face fell. He couldn’t tell them. He could never tell anyone.

The angel smiled.

Golf addiction!?!  I had not considered golf as something to be addicted to.  I know there are none of us in here that would be sufferers of that particular condition, right?  Perhaps some spouses would beg to differ…

We can actually become addicted to anything and many, many people do.  Did you know:

  1. Almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, yet only 10% of them receive treatment.
  2. About 6% of American adults (about 15 million people) have an alcohol use disorder, but only about 7% of Americans who are addicted to alcohol ever receive treatment.
  3. Alcohol and drug addiction cost the U.S. economy over $600 billion every year.
  4. In 2017, doctors issued 191,218,272 opioid prescriptions, a slight decline from the 200,000,000 opioid prescriptions which they issued every year from 2006 to 2016.
  5. Approximately 2.1 million Americans have an opioid use disorder.
  6. In 2017, 886,000 Americans used heroin at least once.
  7. About 25% of people who try heroin will become addicted.
  8. About 30-40 million Americans smoke marijuana every year.
  9. About 30% of people who regularly use marijuana have a marijuana use disorder.
  10. About 200,000 Americans are classified as “porn addicts.”
  11. Every Second: 28,258 users are watching pornography on the internet.
  12. Every Day: 68 million search queries related to pornography- 25% of total searches- are generated.

And none of these numbers address the many other types of addiction that exist out there: gambling, food, video games, shopping, work, power…

We can become addicted to just about anything.  It can be obvious in that it can be noticeable, seen on the face or in the body of the one who is living with it.  It can also be much less obvious, hidden away from view and played out in total secrecy.

Anyone can become an addict.  Help groups such as AA are places where people from all walks of life gather to come alongside one another and offer support an solidarity in struggle and recovery.  Addiction does not discriminate.

But where does it come from? Where does the addictions start for a person?  With other diseases and conditions we can see roots and beginnings.  Infectious diseases are caused by pathogenic microorganisms.  Contagious diseases are caused by coming into contact with an infected individual.  A starting point can be found in these instances, but it is not so cut and dried when it comes to addiction because there are many factors at play.  Dr. Matthew Stanford points to psychological, environmental, and biological factors all playing their parts in a person’s journey into addiction. He points also to spiritual factors too, and that is where I want to spend some time this morning.

It was St Augustine that said in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Centuries later, Blaise Pascal said something similar when he said these words:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

In both statements, Augustine and Pascal were pointing to the existence within us of what has become known to us as the God-shaped hole.  This God-shaped hole is that space within each of us in which we recognize a deep longing to be satisfied. It is a hunger for God ultimately. For many who are caught in addiction, the beginnings have been their attempts to fill that God-shaped hole with stuff that just cannot fill it.  The satisfaction or buzz of fulfilment that is felt when a high has been hit, or when your horse has come in, or when you have seen what you wanted to see on the screen of your computer is only momentary.  It hits and then it passes and the emptiness  that is left when it does feels even greater than before.  That hit cannot satisfy the spiritual longing that exists in that space deep within the human soul.  As Augustine, Pascal, and countless others have said – that longing can only be met by God.

The apostle Paul agrees with this too.  We read it in Romans 7 this morning.  Paul is masterfully speaking to the Roman church about the human condition, the power of sin, the weakness of the flesh.  As he riffs on this he gives us that line that perfectly describes the inner conflict of the addict:  the things I do not want to do, I do, and the things I do want to do, I do not do.  He is saying to his Roman friends that even though in his mind he knows in his head and heart what is good, and even though he wants to do what is right and good, it is his body that marches to a different beat.

  • The drug addict knows that the next hit is not a good idea. But his body craves it.
  • The gambling addict knows he can’t afford that next bet. But he also knows the buzz that will hit if he is a winner.
  • The workaholic is well aware of her commitments at home. But she also craves the recognition she will get when she completes another task or brings in another sale.

For Paul, the body moves to a different beat from the mind and that’s why humans can so easily get lost and buried under the power of addiction. At the root of this problem is our brokenness and separation from God.  We want God.  We long for God.  We want that hole in our souls filled with the fulness of God, but we keep looking in all the wrong places.

“Wretched man that I am!” says Paul. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

The flesh seems to always get the better of Paul – who will help him, he asks?  Who will help him so that he may be set free from this bondage to the power of his flesh.  Paul wants to be right with God.  Paul wants to be free!

I don’t know about you, but I can relate to Paul here.  Hold on…strike that…I do know about you – we can all relate to Paul here, right?  The good we want to do, we don’t do, right?  That which we do not want to do comes so easily to us and we find ourselves giving in to it more times than we would like to.

Who will rescue us from these bodies of death? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

For Paul, of course, the answer to the problem of a body that just doesn’t seem to listen and ends up giving in to our addictions and temptations is Jesus Christ.  It is in Jesus that the sinner finds the transforming power of God to change.  It is in Jesus that the addict whose flesh cries out with craving again and again can find freedom from that bondage.  It is in the love of God made real and present in Jesus and in God’s love as it is embodied in the life of the community of Christ’s followers that those who are tied up in chains of addiction can find freedom. And that is the call that we all need to hear as a church planted in a world in which addictions are rife in the lives of families all around us. The call to be the church in which those who struggle and are tied up in addiction and sin can hear good news of God’s love and transforming power in Jesus.  The call to be a church who are willing to welcome and walk alongside the broken and afflicted whatever it is that is breaking them and whatever that looks like in their lives. It’s the call to be what Philip Yancy calls The Midnight Church.

In his book, Disappointment With God,  Yancey writes about a visit he made to a quite unique church.  He describes a church that manages has no denomination HQ or staff and yet still manages to attract millions of visitors on a weekly basis.  He went to the sixth “service” of the day at midnight one Monday.  The room was filled with cigarette smoke and as he looked around he noticed a famous local politician and a couple of known millionaires mixing with unemployed dropouts and some kids who wore band-aids to hide the needle marks on their arms.  Of course the church he was attending that night was an AA meeting.  He had been invited by a friend who went on to explain that his AA meetings had come to replace church in his life.  Yancey finished his reflections with these words:

I came away from the midnight church impressed, but also wondering why AA meets needs in a way that the local church does not – or at least did not for my friend.  I asked him to name the one quality missing in the local church that AA had somehow now provided.  He stared at his cup of coffee for a long time, watching it go cold.  I expected to hear a word like love or acceptance or, knowing him, perhaps anti-institutionalism.  Instead, he said softly this one word: dependency.

“None of us can make it on our own – isn’t that why Jesus came?” he explained. “Yet most church people give off a self-satisfied air of piety or superiority.  I don’t sense them consciously leaning on God or each other.  Their lives appear to be in order.  An alcoholic who goes to church feels inferior and incomplete.”  He sat in silence for a while until a smile began to crease his face.  It’s a funny thing,” he said at last.  “What I hate most about myself, my alcoholism, was the one thing God used to bring me back to him.  Because of it, I know I cannot survive without him.  Maybe that’s the redeeming value of alcoholics.  Maybe God is calling us alcoholics to teach the saints what it means to be dependent on him and on his community on earth.”