Notes from sermon
1 Corinthians 13:4-13
This Advent series, we are exploring the reality of mental illness as part of the darkness of this world into which God came as Jesus.
A small planning group met to discuss the idea, and one of the first things we agreed is that we will try very hard not to talk about ‘those people’ who suffer from mental illness. Many, many of us do, and if not us individually, then our family, our friends or members of our church family will be suffering. So we agreed as a group to share honestly, within this church worship setting, the reality of mental illness in our own lives, to talk about us, not them, me not you.
As part of that group, my husband has agreed for me to share with you the reality of his depression. It’s a cruel illness, and he has suffered from it all his adult life since it seems to have been triggered by hepatitis in his 20s. So, I have lived up close with the reality of depression, all the years we have been married. I have also seen the impact of a wide range of illness amongst my friends and family. And as a social worker, I have tried to be alongside people who have been deeply suffering, including those who have been abused, and learned something of the cruel link between abuse and illness of all kinds.
And because of all those experiences, I was really grateful when Heston shared the idea of spending this Advent exploring the reality of mental illness and how it can impact on all of us. So often it is hidden away, an unmentionable difficulty. I don’t really understand why, but it is so much simpler to have a ‘real’ physical illness – you get more sympathy for a broken leg or for coming out in spots with chicken pox or shingles, than you do for a mental illness.
And yet I heard on the radio many years ago now, a Desert Island Discs with Norman Tebbit’s wife Margaret, who was severely and permanently paralysed by the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984. Margaret Tebbit spoke of the almost total paralysis she suffered from the bombing, and how even today she has no movement below the neck. She also spoke of her experience of childbirth during the 1960s. After two of her babies were born, she was hospitalized with severe post-natal depression. Amazingly in this interview, she then went on to say that the paralysis has been much easier to live with than the post-natal depression. The interviewer was taken aback and double-checked what she had heard. ‘O yes’, said Margaret Tebbit, ‘because you see it is me dealing with the paralysis, and however tough it gets, or however painful, it is still me dealing with it; whereas after the babies I lost any sense of who I was, and this made it all far, far worse and more terrifying.’ I have held on to that insight, as it has also helped me understand just how dreadful depression is for someone to try and live with.
Living up close and uncomfortable with depression has also made me curse God on many occasions. You may have read or heard the interview with Archbishop Justin Welby last week, when he said that the Paris bombings had made him doubt God. I don’t so much doubt God, as find myself wanting to curse God for creating human beings who can suffer such dreadful emotional turmoil.
A good friend suffers profoundly from mental illness. He had never been able to hold down a job, and in his 30s still lived with his dad to care for him. Some time ago, he wrote us a letter in which he said he couldn’t bear what he called happy-clappy church people, who simply encourage you to feel God’s love and your life will be all peace and joy or as the old hymn put it, all sunshine. How, our friend asked, could he square this with his own experience of being created as an individual with such severe mental difficulties that he finds it hard to feel anything emotionally, much less feel the love of an abstract concept such as God? A good and challenging question! To which I have never had a good enough answer.
So it is right and proper for us to acknowledge the depth of darkness and difficulty in our world; when I was looking at images to use on the screen this morning, there were all sorts of beautiful candles glowing warmly in the darkness. In the end I chose one which is nearly burnt through and looks a fairly flickering, frail light. Because that can at times be a much truer reflection true of our experience of the promise of Advent, than any serene and warming glow that promises a happy ending just around the corner. What if the last candle of hope flickers and dies before Jesus arrives for us? What then?
The truth, of course, is that this whole area is much, much more complex than a symbol like a candle can ever hope to capture. We can feel total nothingness, like our friend who wrote us the letter I talked about earlier, whilst still, again like our friend on his better days, rationally signing up to the reality of God’s love and the promise of Jesus, born as a vulnerable baby in Bethlehem, hunted by violent men, a refugee before he could walk and a troubled man who faced torture and death in his early 30s.
Or we can be overwhelmed with the love of God in Jesus, and the love shown by human beings to each other, and yet wake up one day to face some awful trauma, maybe illness, or bereavement, or some other awful thing, something which throws us upside down and inside out, and only holding on to God as a memory or, as R.S Thomas the poet put it, an absence. An absence so profound that it somehow speaks of a presence.
How can we understand the problem of suffering? How do we even try to comprehend what we glibly talk of as ‘darkness’ before the light of Christmas? I don’t know!
Many years ago, when my husband’s depression was at its worst, I found it hard to know how to support him, how to keep our family life on track, and how to go to work each day not knowing how he would be by the time I returned. He went to a conference where the speaker was Dr Sheila Cassidy. You may remember the name. In the 1970s as a doctor working in Chile at the time of the military coup, she was asked to treat an injured partisan. As a doctor, she is required to treat anyone regardless of creed or colour, and so she did – but was then arrested, kept in solitary confinement and tortured.
It took her many years to recover from this trauma and to find purpose again in her life, as the director of a hospice for the dying. This book, Good Friday People, is one of the wonderful books she has written about her faith and her experiences. Anyway, here she was speaking at a conference where she spoke honestly about her experiences following her return to the UK from Chile, and about the fact that she had needed medication to cope with the deep-seated depression which she now suffered. My husband found himself seated next to her over lunch and spoke to her of his own depression.
‘Have you been to the doctor?’ she asked. Well no, he said. ‘Oh! so you would try to sort out a broken leg without medical help would you?’ she chided. ‘Get yourself to the doctor and accept help for your misfiring brain.’ So that’s what he did – and he has never ever returned to the difficult place he was in before that encounter. It can still be tricky, but not as hard as it was. So in amongst hurling my criticisms at God, I do also try to remember to say my thanks for the invention of anti- depressants!
And you can imagine that I feel to owe Dr Sheila Cassidy a lot, and especially to owe her serious attention when she talks of these matters. She doesn’t even try to answer the overarching question about why suffering? Why darkness? But listen to what she does say, in this passage from her book Good Friday People. First, she talks about one of the patients in the hospice and then she goes on with her reflection:
I have long since given up asking the ‘why’ of suffering. It gets me nowhere and I know when I am beat. I live quite peaceably in the eye of this theological storm, moving about in the accustomed darkness like a mole in its burrow or a blind woman in the safety of her home. I know less and less, but that which I do know, I know ever more deeply, down in my guts where true faith lives.
What then, is the message from this dark, still point, from the eye of the hurricane? I believe it is this: suffering is in the same way that life is. It is a fact; denying or ignoring it will not make it go away. I do not know if it has a meaning. Deep in my heart I believe it has but I don’t really know. But this I do know: more important than asking why, we should get in there, be alongside those who suffer. We must plunge in up to our necks in the icy water, the mud and the slurry to hold up a drowning child until he is rescued or dies in our arms. If he dies, so be it and if we die with him, so be it also. Greater love hath no man, than he who lays down his life for his friend.
Sometimes, of course, we cannot plunge in, the sea is too wild or the waves are too fierce. We are not called to sacrifice ourselves, to climb on to another’s funeral pyre, but I do believe we are asked to keep vigil, to pray and to endure, to keep awake. This is what this book is about, sharing as far as we are able in the suffering of the world, which is also the suffering of God.
(Sheila Cassidy Good Friday People 1991 pp114/5)
So we, in this Advent series, are trying to do something creative together. We are trying to stand alongside all those of us who are suffering from mental illness. We are trying to understand it, understand the impact it can have and also recognise where help can be obtained. And in that understanding, we will hope to reach a deeper understanding of the world to which God came in Jesus.
Not some sloppy, sentimental, gooey world like Mothercare or Baby Gap would pretend childbirth to be, and not as the centre of a crappy, commercial festival like the Winterfest that our shops throw themselves into right after Halloween.
But a world where pain, suffering and evil are a reality but so is love, joy, peace, and faith – even when they flicker like our candle, or feel to have been totally extinguished for us. As I have been reflecting on all of this since our planning group met about 10 days ago, I have found myself turning to the verse in Corinthians that we have listened to this morning. Most of the passage talks about love but at the end, Paul says: so faith hope and love abide but the greatest of these is love.
Why, I have sometimes wondered, does Paul bother to mention faith and hope if love is the most important, the one that trumps the others? But thinking of our friend Andrew and his inability to feel love, and thinking of this world where even the faith of an Archbishop can be shaken, maybe we begin to get a glimmer of understanding about why: because we need to hold on to faith where it is shaken; and to cling to hope.
Yesterday morning, an Advent letter arrived from the Revd Gareth Powell, Secretary of the Methodist Conference. He focuses on the need for hope in this sad world this Advent. Let me just read a couple of Gareth’s sentences:
More than that, we live by hope. Belief in God does not ask of us to decide if we have a glass half full or half empty approach to our ministry. No amount of positive thinking (or grace for that matter) will alter the amount of liquid in the glass.
Manger, cross, tomb, bread and wine speak to us of a hope that is very much more then optimism or the vague notion that somehow we can make things better if only we try very hard. Manger, cross, tomb, bread and wine are one in that they mark the location of love, for where God is, love is. That is both a simple and a hard message to proclaim, but proclaim is all we can do in the face of terror, hatred and disinterest.
I will email my thanks to Gareth later and tell him that in this Anglican Church in Leeds, we have appreciated his words about hope!
A Hope that helps us cling on, even where we cannot feel love or cannot see it in the world around us, hope that someday, somewhere, we will see it, and that somehow, we can crawl with Sheila Cassidy into the centre of the storm and there find our baby God, who is faith, love and hope all wrapped up in one.
And it is to that hope we cling this Advent. Amen.