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.”

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