I wrote in my newsletter column to you all in January that it seems as though there has been an unusually high level of stress among us lately, and in fact in the community at large. This impression was borne out the other day by my colleague over at the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Tanya Rasmussen, who said that she' s noticed a stress spike lately, too, and that a doctor member of her congregation confirms that people are just more sick lately with stress-related, psychosomatic illness.
The word "psycho-somatic" has a negative connotation of being something that' s "all in your mind," but what it really means in that the suffering in the soul (or psyche) has an effect on the somatic system or the feeling, aware body.
I learned recently, for instance, that chronic anxiety can create actual, physical pain for the sufferer; pain mostly located in the chest or lungs. That' s why so many people who suffer panic or anxiety attacks initially think they' re having a heart attack.
Depression, as you may know, can also be physically painful, causing an oppressive feeling of heaviness or exhaustion, and wiping out sexual desire, appetite and even the sense of smell or taste. We are lucky to have so much new awareness of the mind-body connection in medicine, and so many new pharmaceutical options for diseases of the mind and the soul.
It is such a difficult thing to know, in this new era of pharmaceutical innovation for mental health care, when to medicate and when to let the soul have its say and work through its pain. I have no pat answer for this important question, except to say that I was alarmed when I heard about proposed legislation that would require universal mental health screening for all our nation' s children, and for pregnant women (this legislation was passed in Illinois). You can read more about that under the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. It bears watching.
Are we allowed to suffer anymore, or do we not have time for even that? How much suffering is too much, beyond what we should have to bear? No one can answer this question, but we can begin to help one another endure suffering by admitting that we all suffer to one degree or another. We cannot gauge our own sense of normality (if there even is such a thing!) if we never hear that anyone else ever suffers depression, anxiety, grief, or phobias. One of you forwarded me an article this week, called "The Good Enough Mother," by Anna Quindlen. In the article, Quindlen says that "we live in a perfection society now, in which it is possible to make our bodies last longer, to manipulate our faces so the lines of laughter and distress are wiped out. We believe in the illusion of control "
We do indeed, and guess what? That sense that we ought to be in control that we can and should plan our days, our hours and our lives and expect those plans to be made manifest by our hard work and good intention causes us to suffer!! Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who pioneered the field of psychoanalysis, made a helpful distinction between neurotic suffering and authentic suffering. Neurotic suffering has no directly identifiable source, it is borne of a mind that is fixated on fear and negative interpretations of every event. Authentic suffering is based on painful experiences or potentially painful experiences. It occurred to me recently that many middle class people of my acquaintance (many of whom are church members) dismiss their own suffering as being neurotic suffering, when in fact it is quite authentic. They' ll say, "Oh, I have nothing to complain about because I have a roof over my head, a source of income, and good health."
And I usually say something like, "You might not have much to complain about, but I hope you will nevertheless give yourself permission to suffer." There are many things beyond hunger or homelessness that can cause authentic suffering.
Let me reflect with you a bit on the current status of pastoral care in this church. I would say that on most days, we feel like an ordinary congregation with ordinary pastoral stresses: babies are born, children deal with growing up, teenagers painfully form their identities and begin to prepare to leave the nest, couples have marriage troubles, singles experience their own struggles for a variety of needs, sick folks go into the hospital, some of us die, some of us actively grieve our dead, and we have a variety of addictions, phobias, chronic mental and physical ailments among us. And on any given day, lots of people are just fine, too!
There are many strong and good friendships in this congregation, and an ethic of care. People give rides, they bring casseroles. We have a Caregivers Group that meets monthly, and a Suicide Survivors group that convenes here too. You are an active phone-calling congregation. You care well for each other.
My hope is that we can think together soon about how we might more deeply and intentionally care for each other on a pastoral level, in that place where confidences can be held, pain and fear heard, and prayerful support and presence offered.
I have this hope today because this has been an especially intense time in the pastoral ministry of the church, and it has occurred to me more than ever this week that it would be wonderful if we had a team of congregants with a sense of calling and training to do this work, to go out to some of the places where our people are suffering and to offer a spiritual companionship to them (if they welcomed it). Training for this work would include active listening, learning to ask open-ended questions, developing the ability to share appropriately of our own struggles, entering into a covenant of confidentiality, and preparing to make visits that encourage conversation about the condition of one'
s spirit or soul.
We talked in December about the Marys and the Marthas in church life, do you remember? If you recall, the Martha personality is the man or woman who is at their best when doing for others: cooking, cleaning, fixing, driving, and that sort of thing. The Marys are more oriented toward the ministry of presence: listening, offering silent companionship, prayer or meditation sitting in a hospital room and just keeping someone company. I had a vision this week of a Mary-Martha Pastoral Ministry Team model, where we would have a list of Marys and of Marthas available to help care for the congregation. If you feel a sense of excitement about being a "Mary" (we' ll have to find a new name for that! I don' t want men to feel excluded!), please let me know. We' re not at a crisis point but it' s only wise to put things in place for the near future.
They say that every minister has in him or her one sermon; a message that they repeat over and over again using new examples. You may have figured out by now that my one sermon is something like: beneath that shiny, "together" exterior, I know you are in pain, and I know you are frightened and that you don' t always know what to do. And I am unshakably faithful that in the darkest nights of your soul as well as on your best, most high-achieving and super-perfecto days, you are loved, you are a precious and unrepeatable creation, and you are a dwelling place for the Divine Presence.
You are a dwelling place for the Divine Presence, no matter who you are, no matter how "well" you are doing.
That' s my sermon. I imagine that those individuals who come here really altogether content, confident and doing well get tired of hearing it. But it is my sermon, because learning that truth was what saved my own life when I first began going back to church as a young adult.
I want to tell you a little bit about that time.
I had chosen to attend Northwestern University without any consideration that it was very far from home, and since my mother had sold our house in Connecticut and moved to upstate New York soon after I graduated, I had no home anymore. I was grieving the loss of my father and had no idea how to manage my inner life anymore. All of the tricks I had learned in order to cope as a child no longer worked, and I realized that my entire sense of identity had been built on the basis of external achievements and approval. I had no idea who I was. I had no sense of self and therefore no self-esteem.
My mother was in a rehab program in Arizona, getting help she needed for her addictions (she has given me permission to share this information about her, and has been sober for many years now). Also, I had fallen in love for the first time, which brought me far more fear than joy.
I used to walk across campus crying. It seemed I could not stop crying. I woke up every morning for at least a year -- maybe two wondering if I would still be oppressed by a sense of emotional pain that actually, physically hurt. My first waking thought was often, "Will this be the day the hurting stops?" One evening I got a call from a professor I remember his face but not his name who said he was calling purely for personal reasons. He was concerned about me, and he wanted to let me know that he had noticed that I often cried through class. I hadn' t noticed myself, too busy taking notes to realize that I was leaking tears almost the entire ninety minutes (This is what we call "compartmentalization" when one part of the self has no idea what the other is doing!). I had no idea how to receive this act of caring, and I got off the phone as fast as I could, reassuring my professor that I would be okay, and feeling terribly exposed and embarrassed. I resolved to get a better grip on myself. Can you imagine the lack of compassion in that thought? "I' m crying all the time, I need to get a grip on myself so I don' t distract the professor any more. What a loser I am!"
It was shortly after this time that I attended summer services at the UU congregation in Evanston, looking for some kind of solace and some kind of community. I was alone that summer, choosing not to go back East to my mother' s new apartment somewhere in New York State. I was living in an apartment, working somewhere I didn' t like and spending a lot of time with my boyfriend. But I was a mess. I sat in that church weeping through the entire service, and afterwards I was so desperate for conversation and connection that I actually stayed for coffee hour, even though I knew some people had noticed me crying in one of the back pews. My need overrode my self-consciousness and embarrassment.
I need to tell you that not one person spoke to me or even stood near me at coffee hour. They let me stand there holding my cup and they whispered about me, concerned and alarmed, not knowing how to approach this broken-winged bird who had flown into their building. I finally pushed myself out the door and into the day, and I can' t tell you how heavy my heart was and how hard it was to forgive the failure of those people to offer a simple greeting, a tissue, an expression of care at any level. It would have meant so much to me if one of them had even said, "I noticed that you seem to be in a lot of pain and I want to say I' m sorry. I don' t know what else to say, but I' m sorry you' re hurting so much. Please come back. We hope to see you again." Even if someone had stood near me and smiled it would have meant so much.
Now, of course, I understand! They must have thought that if they approached me, they' d have this basket case college kid to deal with! I understand now that the reason these good people did not approach me is because they were scared. They probably felt that there was nothing they could say or do that would save me or heal me, so they said nothing. And this is the mistake individuals and congregations often make when there is one among them who is obviously suffering and broken: we feel that if they cannot offer a "fix," we shouldn' t offer anything at all. What we don' t always remember is that there are plenty of fixers in our world: doctors and medications, self-help books and clinics and therapies to teach new ways of thinking and being. The role of the church, and the role of the friend, is not to try to fix, but to provide companionship, a being-with, and a witness to the struggle.
In case this situation ever arises for you in our church, another thing you could do is just stand next to the person and maybe put your hand on their shoulder. Pass them the phone number for some helping person. And if you' re the one who could really use that phone number, please try to let someone know. There' s a little card in your pew, actually, that you could fill out and drop in the offering basket or leave in the office. Please do us the honor of trying to be your companion in the struggle. And if we should not do well, or even to fail, we need to know that too, and beg your forgiveness.
You' ve heard some of the pleasant expressions : "It takes a chaos to create a swirling star," or "You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet" or other such bromides people might give us when we' re suffering. Back in 1983 I wrote in my diary that I felt I was an egg that was being cracked by God, and it never occurred to me that anything solid would come of it. I felt like a shattered mess for a long time.
I was not then, nor will I probably ever be, the person who deals with adversity with the kind of courage we saw from Kevin in the story, who loses both of his legs and who remains clear about the objective to "get on with life and do the best I can." But I always thought it would be amazing to reach a day where I would feel strong and good enough to be part of the system of support and companionship for others who needed a hand. Today I am. Some days you' re a broken egg, some days you' re part of the omelet. I deeply believe that each of us is valuable and precious in either condition. I want you to believe it, too.
Let me close with another little story. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen was working with a very bitter, depressed 24-year old man who had lost one of his legs to bone cancer. At one point in his treatment, Dr. Remen asked him to draw a picture of his body, which he depicted as a broken vase, with a huge crack running through it. "He had taken a black crayon and had drawn the crack over and over again." He gritted his teeth with rage as he made the drawing, as he felt he was irreparably broken and useless, and would never be whole again.
Several years after suffering this loss, and learning to find meaning and joy in life again, the young man returned to Dr. Remen' s office. He saw the picture he had drawn of the vase. "Oh, this one isn' t done," he remarked, and so Dr. Remen suggested he take a box of crayons and finish his drawing. The young man took a yellow crayon and "putting his finger on the crack he said, You see, here where it is broken this is where the light comes through.' And with the yellow crayon, he drew light streaming through the crack in his body.' " (Rachel Naomi Remen in Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit and the Heart, ed. Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman, p. 29)
Where it is broken, that is where the light comes through. As we just sang with such spirit and such gusto, "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!"
You are welcome here, cracked eggs and omelets all. Whoever you are, however cracked you feel today, you are a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Let us live as though we believed that, see how much light can shine through.
(For S. and for A., with love)