In the hit TV series Friends, Season 10, episode 2 (for those of you who will go home and Netflix this later), the character who plays Ross walks into the apartment to find his friend Joey and the former love of his life Rachel in a heated kiss. After some blubbering on of Joey and Rachel, Ross stands stunned for a few moments, then goes on to say “I’m Fine. I’m fine. I’m FIIIINE.” He’s clearly not fine!
But you know, we do that too – try and convince each other and the world, that we are always fine. No matter personal challenges we may be facing, no matter how the hurtful things others say to us, no matter how we may be struggling to make sense of the world, our economy, our climate change, our horrendous weather...How are you doing? I’m fine. I’m good. How are you? The pretense can be exhausting, especially when too often, we are anything but fine.
The man in our story today was long past pretending everything was fine. Everyone knew he was not well. He was ostracized from the community, living in the outskirts – the tombs or the caves, plagued by his demons. To his family, he was probably considered dead. He wore no clothes, he beat himself with rocks. The authorities had tried to chain him up, but he broke the chains. When Jesus approached, the man was drawn to him, greeting Jesus right away. However, the man or the demons, because when you are drowning in disease, the distinction is blurred – wants to know what Jesus wants with them. One of the first persons to recognize and name Jesus as the Son of God, the demons that ruled this man were reluctant to have their power overcome. Jesus asks for their name – to which the reply is Legion, meaning many.
For those lost in addiction, depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or other forms of mental illness, hearing another call the disease by name can be simultaneously liberating and infuriating. Naming aloud our whatever we struggle with that keeps us from experiencing wholeness is painful. It’s painful because it means coming to terms with the reality that we are not as fine as we pretend to be. And, once we know it and stop pretending, then maybe God will also know and others might find out too. But naming it also is the beginning of healing and finding a course of action.
I couldn’t make an appointment with a therapist when my daughter Halle Grace died. I was pretty sure that if I named aloud all that I was feeling inside, I would go down a deep dark tunnel and never come out. I was terrified that I would lose myself, and it would be over. After a few months, I took time off from work and scheduled my first appointment, then started going a couple times each week. I discovered in my sessions of telling my story, sharing my hopes and my fears, my anger, and my sorrow, that I didn’t lose myself, but started to find myself again. One of the greatest gifts that therapist gave me was giving me permission to stop protecting those around me from my pain. When I wasn’t okay, I didn’t have to say I was. I also didn’t owe everyone full access to my heart – but it was okay to say I was sad. I was allowed to talk about my daughter even if it made other people feel uncomfortable. And even though I knew that my pain didn’t measure up to what other people had endured, it didn’t mean my experience was any less valid.
We all have our pain. We all have our battles. I still go to a therapist every month or so, just to check in, about work, marriage, my kids, my perspective because I learned that I don’t have to carry the weight of the world myself. My faith is one of my greatest tools of not having to be in control. I spend a lot of time in prayer and reading scripture. However, having a person who can look me in the eye and share a different perspective is helpful for keeping me mentally and emotionally balanced. As a church community, I think it’s important for us to talk about mental health and the ways we care for our mental health. There is so much stigma around even talking about mental health, but we are the Body of Christ if we are going to be faithful, we have to talk about how we are caring for ourselves and helping one another find the care they need. I am so thankful for the ministry of our Stephen Ministers in this congregation. Stephen Ministers being active listener, faithful prayer support and that SM meet regularly to support each other as well. What a blessing that we have a whole team of folks who have been trained, not to be a psychiatrist or counselor, but a spiritual companion through the rough patches of our journeys in life – sometimes that is a short-term walk and sometimes a more ongoing support.
Brené Brown in "Daring Greatly" writes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
When Jesus casts the demons out, a herd of swine dies, and often the collateral damage of illness is even more far reaching than the livestock. The loss of Marriage, friendship, job, home, children, and even futures have too often been in the wake of being unwell. But, when what is “off” is named, when treatment is received, often not through exorcism but medication, professional diagnoses, therapy, facing our demons head on...and healing occurs, we are able to find wholeness and life. Asking for help is a sign of bravery. Walking with someone and standing up to their demons can be life changing – and life-giving.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, 2nd leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15-24. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the CDC. As a community of faith, we cannot know this statistics and pretend that we are fine. Wounded animals react differently than when they are well, and so do we. We are not fine. In this season of discovering abundant and balanced lives – living as God designs – we must pay attention to our wholeness.
The man in our story is vulnerable, he names his demons, he is healed, and he’s forever changed. He wanted to go with Jesus, but instead, he got to go home, for perhaps the first time in years and years. He went and become one of the preachers to the Gentiles of how Jesus had made him whole. Finally, he was fine.
Our first lesson today reminded us that God is the God who knows us and has loved us from the very beginning. There is nowhere we go where God doesn’t know and doesn’t go with us. Through thick and thin, God is there. “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, " to give you a future with hope.” Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly."
How are we? Sometimes we are fine. Sometimes we are not. But God is at work seeking to make us whole – and isn’t that good news. Amen.