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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Elephants and Birds

2014-08-17 Ps 130 Mt 09 09-13 Elephants and Birds


I’ve been thinking about elephants. The death of Robin Williams really got me thinking about what we often call “the elephant in the room.” It got me thinking about how the church – churches across this country – are really good at ignoring elephants in the room.

I had a pretty decent sermon all prepared. I thought, I could use that one, and say something about the elephants in the prayers of the people. You know the elephants I mean. Depression, other kinds of mental illness, suicide. Herd them up and fly over them real fast, like a tourist plane on safari.

The problem is, when you’re talking about mental illness and suicide, we’re not the tourists in the plane. We’re on the ground. We either talk about the elephants, or we’re caught empty-handed when they stampede, which is kind of what happened last week.


I don’t know many people whose lives haven’t been stepped on by mental illness or a substance abuse disorder. And when you say that, you have to include suicide, because more than 90 percent of people who die from suicide have a diagnosable mental or substance disorder.

More than one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. More than one in ten Americans take an antidepressant. This is a BIG elephant.

And what does the church say about this? I know what I’ve said from the pulpit, and it’s embarrassing. Churches tend to change the subject. We think weakness is a downer. So we fly real fast to the strength of God. We say the strength of God is the most powerful medicine in heaven and on earth, and that’s true. But any doctor will tell you, too much powerful medicine can be poison.


There’s a poisonous myth often loudly preached by the church. It says that God is ONLY the God of strength. It says God is ONLY the God of victory. God is ONLY the God of resurrection joy. It’s poisonous. It’s poisonous because it tells people who aren’t strong, people who aren’t victorious, people who aren’t resurrected by joy every morning that something’s wrong with them. They’re not right. They’re not really of God. Because if you’re of God, you’ll always be happy and healthy and all your plans will prosper. And that’s a lie.

You can’t read much of the Bible without seeing how elephant-sized of a lie it is.

Psalm 130:

Out of the depths […out of the depths] I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! …I wait for the Lord, my soul waits… my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

The lie ignores Psalm 22, those sacred words Jesus cried out from the cross,

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

It ignores what Jesus proclaimed, that those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick, those who are hurting, who are broken. These are the ones to whom Christ came.

“Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.”

When the church hides from the depths, when we ignore the elephants, we get it wrong.


So how do we start to get it right? What do we say?

Last week, the author, Ann Voskamp, wrote a journal called, “What the Church & Christians Need to Know About Suicide & Mental Health.” The link to the whole article is in the Notes section of the bulletin.

I’d like to read some of it to you. She writes:


Dear Church,

Cancer can be deadly and so can depression.

So can the dark and the shame and the crush of a thousand skeletons, a thousand millstones, a thousand internal infernos.

We could tell you what we know.

That — depression is like a room engulfed in flames and you can’t breathe for the sooty smoke smothering you limp — and suicide is deciding there is no way but to jump straight out of the burning building.

That when the unseen scorch on the inside finally sears intolerably hot – you think a desperate lunge from the flames and the land of the living seems the lesser of two unbearables.

That’s what you’re thinking — that if you’d do yourself in, you’d be doing everyone a favor.

I had planned mine for a Friday.

That come that Friday the flames would be licking right up the strain of my throat. You don’t try to kill yourself because death’s appealing — but because life’s agonizing. We don’t want to die. But we can’t stand to be devoured.

So I made this plan. And I wrote this note.

And I remember the wild agony of no way out and how the stars looked, endless and forever, and your mind can feel like it’s burning up at all the edges and there’s never going to be any way to stop the flame. Don’t bother telling us not to jump unless you’ve felt the heat, unless you bear the scars of the singe.

Don’t only turn up the praise songs[,] but turn to Lamentations and Job and be a place of lament and tenderly unveil the God who does just that — who wears the scars of the singe. A God who bares His scars and reaches through the fire to grab us, “Come — Escape into Me.”

Nobody had told me that –

that one of the ways to get strong again is to set the words free.

You know — The Word that bends close and breathes warming love into the universe…. and the words mangled around swollen secrets and strangling dark — just let the Word, the words, all free in you.

My Dad, he had told me that if I told, it’d slit us all.

So much for believing the Truth will set you free. So much weight for a wide-eyed nine-year-old.

So I locked lips and heart hard so no one knew about the locked wards and the psychiatric doctors and why my mama was gone and it’s crazy how the stigma around mental health can drive you right insane.


There are some who take communion and anti-depressants and there are those who think both are a crutch.

Come in close — I’d rather walk tall with a crutch than crawl around insisting like a proud and bloody fool that I didn’t need one.

I once heard a pastor tell the whole congregation that he had lived next to the loonie bin and I looked at the floor when everyone laughed and they didn’t know how I loved my mama. I looked to the floor when they laughed, when I wanted them to stand up and reach through the pain of the flames and say:

Our Bible says Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a doctor, but those who are sick.” Jesus came for the sick, not for the smug.

Jesus came as doctor and He makes miracles happen through medicine and when the church isn’t for the suffering, then the Church isn’t for Christ.

I wanted them to say what I knew: The Jesus I know never preached some Health Prosperity Gospel, some pseudo-good news that if you just pray well, sing well, worship well, live well and deposit all that into some Divine ATM — you get to take home a mind and body that are well. That’s not how the complex beauty of life unfolds.

The real Jesus turns to our questions of why, why this sickness, who is to blame — and he says it like a caress to the aching, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here.” (John 9:3 MSG)… “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him” (John 9:5 NLT).

That’s the grace touch of Jesus: The dark is not your fault, the dark is not the heavy night that weighs the worth of your soul, the dark is not about blame.

The dark is about bravely being a canvas for light — about courageously letting your dark be a canvas for sparks of God’s glory, a backdrop for ambers of mercy in the midst of your fire.


Depression may not be your fault, but a sign that this world is fallen – not a sign of personal sin, but that we all have sinned.


That’s what I’d wanted as a kid sitting there in a church full of folks chuckling at mental illness, what I wanted the whole church to say all together, like one Body, for us to say it all together to each other because there is not even one of us who hasn’t lost something, who doesn’t fear something, who doesn’t ache with something. I wanted us to turn to the hurting, to each other, and promise it till we’re hoarse:

“We won’t give you some cliche – but something to cling to — and that will mean our hands.

We won’t give you some platitudes — but some place for your pain — and that will mean our time.

We won’t give you some excuses — but we’ll be some example — and that will mean bending down and washing your wounds. Wounds that we don’t understand, wounds that keep festering, that don’t heal, that downright stink — wounds that can never make us turn away.

Because we are the Body of the Wounded Healer and we are the people who believe the impossible — that wounds can be openings to the beauty in us.”


We’re the people who say: “there’s no shame saying that your heart and head are broken because there’s a Doctor in the house. It’s the wisest and the bravest who cry for help when lost.

There’s no stigma in saying you’re sick because there’s a wounded Healer who uses nails to buy freedom and crosses to resurrect hope and medicine to make miracles.

There’s no guilt in mental illness because depression is a kind of cancer that attacks the mind. You don’t shame cancer, you treat cancer. You don’t treat those with hurting insides as less than. You get them the most treatment.”

I wanted the brave to speak up, to speak the Truth and Love:

Shame is a bully and Grace is a shield.  You are safe here.

To write it on walls and on arms and right across wounds:

“No Shame.

No Fear.

No Hiding.

Always safe for the suffering here.

You can be different and you can struggle and you can wrestle and you can hurt and we will be here. Because a fallen world keeps falling apart and even though we the Body can’t make things turn out — we can turn up. Just keep turning up, showing up, looking up.”


If we only knew what fire every person is facing — there isn’t one person we wouldn’t help fight their fire with the heat of a greater love.

Mama came Home and I found grace, a thousand, endless graces, and it is by grace not works we are saved, grace adopting us into a family that no illness can ever remove us from.

Grace, that miracle which even the darkest night can’t consume — grace that miracle that can only consume you.

Light can pry through the dark. A shaft can come through a window like a lifeline.

The birds on a wire can someday sing —

We have heard them.


I would offer that one of those birds singing on a wire is Ann Voskamp.

Another one of those weird, beautiful birds was Robin Williams.

But Jesus is the strangest bird of all.

You can hear him singing in voices crying out from the depths. He is the person who needs healing. He is the caregiver who brings a gentle touch. He is the friend with a listening ear. He is the pharmacist who silently blesses your medication. He is the stunned public who mourns a fallen hero. He is the weary soul, searching for relief. Jesus sings like a bird on a wire. Singing with us, and singing for those who can’t. And even now, he sings his song to our hearts:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. (Psa 130:5-6)

…and I will wait with you.





Read author Ann Voskamp’s journal entry, “What the Church and Christians Need to Know About Suicide and Mental Health,” at www.aholyexperience.com