Crazy Life: Meeting the Mystery of God

“It is easier to gaze into the sun, than into the face of the mystery of God. Such is its beauty and its radiance.” ~ Hildegard of Bingen

“The brilliance of contemplated beauty opens the spirit to the mystery of God.” ~ Angelo Sodano

I cannot recall exactly when it happened, but I remember I was going to sleep one night and it just suddenly hit me, that is, the awesome mystery of God. An image of an endless, dark and inscrutable ocean welled up in my mind. I instinctively knew it was a representation of the Divine, and it frightened me. The great swells of water seemed to threaten me, and I actually found it hard to breath.

HEY7221This image, with all the attendant feelings, came back many more times, (and has recurred since I left the Samson Group Home.) Along with this I realized something rather simple, something that should have been obvious all along, and that is: I really do not even begin to comprehend God in his essence. I also realized that God truly is completely overwhelming.

It struck me ~ this simple yet profound truth ~ that I could quite literally drown in the Divine. The more I thought about all of this, the more I felt like I was suffocating. I reached the point of terror, the a terrore Dei. And I could not escape…

You cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Jonah 2.3 (NRSVCE)

Yet at about the same time the beauty of the world around me struck me with nearly overpowering force, even, or especially, the simplest things: fish jumping up out of the pond behind the house, birds pecking around the yard, and squirrels scampering about; the fox and racoon at night, along with the opossum family, and the dogs barking in the distance. All of creation seemed to radiate intense beauty that in turn pointed to ultimate Beauty, which I identified with God.

During this time is when I began throwing out the leftover bread from lunch. For some reason, I’d suddenly began to feel it my duty to share our food with our kindred creatures. In fact, tossing out the bits and pieces of bread brought with it a deep feeling of peace. I felt as if I were somehow embracing life in the raw, if only a little. It was deeply satisfying and ultimately healthy… It was like a prayer in action.

This is when I began passing over from the more traditional religiosity of Christianity to a certain degree of mystical spirituality, and one without many words. More and more often I would bow my head in prayer, focusing upon God, speaking nothing, just centering on the Divine. And this was enough… It still is enough. In fact, for some reason, prayer with words began to feel strangely inadequate. I felt like I was falling terribly short when praying verbally … so I prayed while praying nothing and everything.

All in all, this was an exceptionally calming experience, even with the overwhelmingness of God. Really, I eventually began to crave the “ocean of the Divine.” I began to fall into an eerie kind of love ~ but true love, nonetheless ~ with this God of Mystery. No, I never really sacrificed the core of what I’d believed most of my life. I still counted myself Christian, (and still do today), but this was a new and powerful, ongoing experience for me, taking me to another, deeper level of life.

But in a strange sense, I also felt like this was, perhaps, the first time in my life that I’d begun to genuinely believe, having now had an authentic confrontation with God… And my whole life became for a time like a cocoon, within which I would be transformed into someone (or something) totally other than I had ever been before.


For previous instalments, go to:

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part I

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part II

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part III

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part IV

Crazy Life: Sally Dumped and Deserted

Crazy Life: Ecclesia et Mentis Morbum

Crazy Life: Just Can’t Say ‘No’

Crazy Life: Hanging in the Balance

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Crazy Life: Hanging in the Balance

A few months after arriving at the Samson (Alabama) Group Home, I asked for a private one-on-one session with the director of the day treatment program, who also happened to be my therapist … thankfully. Her name was Joy, and it certainly fit her very well. She was, indeed, a joy to be around and, consequently, an extremely comfortable counsellor with whom to talk. I needed this, because I desperately needed to open up about something I’d only shared with two, maybe three, individuals in my entire life.

As always before, Joy welcomed me into her office with open arms and a smile. She listened quite attentively as I “spilled my guts,” shared with her one of my deepest, darkest secrets, (nothing at all criminal or unethical, mind you … but extremely difficult, nonetheless.) Point in fact, I was unloading ~ or trying to, anyway ~ an awfully heavy burden I’d carried since adolescence. It was not as if she could help me shoulder this burden ~ not exactly ~ but what she did do was enough.

I mean to say, I received from Joy all that I could expect from an upstanding, conscientious counsellor: Focused attention, non-judgmental reception, calm and sober-minded evaluation, and compassionate understanding. No, she could not solve my conundrum, one with which I have lived for decades now, but she did offer an altruistic, tender-hearted consideration and sensitivity. I was very thankful, of course, and naturally I felt somewhat better for having “unloaded.”

We visited about this issue two or three more times, but I also went to the pastor of the church I was then-currently attending. We met one time and never again. We were supposed to meet again, but it never happened. I suppose, that was as much my fault as hers, but it did hurt somewhat that she seemingly just forgot about it all. And it was not as if she had a large congregation to attend to ~ about forty to fifty members ~ and the very personal issue I’d raised was, indeed, quite important. Not to complain, though… 

After my experience with Joy, however, I decided I wanted to help people like she helps people. I decided I want to be a counsellor in whatever capacity. This is also when I came to the conclusion that the age of pastors (ministers, priests, rabbis, etc.) may very well be coming to an end … at least the traditional role(s) clergy play. I believe members of the clergy are increasingly being squeezed out of usefulness in society, so that to continue to minister they will need to “retool” in order to expand their resumes, so to speak.

By no means am I saying all clergy are bad; no, not at all! And I am not suggesting that members of the clergy are, in and of themselves, somehow worthless. God forbid! And if I am coming across this way, please forgive me! I am only suggesting that the typical pastoral minister will need to add to his/her repertoire of skills and abilities in order to effectively continue on into the 21st century. But this is, perhaps, a subject best left for another day.

the_psychological_corporation_72891So far as the field of counselling is concerned, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…”¹ And I deeply desire to be one of those laborers, eventually. Along with this desire comes somewhat of a radical conviction, that is: Here is the new face of the Church. Here is the new spiritual hospital for holistic care, including mind and soul care. Here is where ministry now effectively takes place. Yes, there are still the typical, local churches, and they will be for the foreseeable future, but the action is elsewhere.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this, as I believe, but I think it is practically undeniable that the landscape is changing … shifting. If you don’t believe me, believe the numbers as presented by Kelley Shattuck on April 10th of this year:

(Olson’s) findings reveal that the actual rate of church attendance from head counts is less than half of the 40 percent the pollsters report. Numbers from actual counts of people in Orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, mainline and evangelical) show that in 2004, 17.7 percent of the population attended a Christian church on any given weekend… 

Another study published in 2005 in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler—known for their scholarly research on the church—backs up his findings. Their report reveals that the actual number of people worshiping each week is closer to Olson’s 17.7 percent figure—52 million people instead of the pollster-reported 132 million (40 percent)

This contrasts to “nearly half of American households,” who “have had someone seek mental health treatment” in 2004. More than this, fully nine out of ten people polled “said they would likely consult or recommend a mental health professional if they or a family member were experiencing a problem.”³ Indeed, this field is “ripe unto harvest,” and the harvest is the very lives of flesh-and-blood human beings … many of those lives quite literally hanging in the balance. I know when I sat down with Joy on that very important day to open my heart and share my decades-old burden, I sure felt like my life was hanging in the balance!


¹ The Gospel of St. Matthew 9.37 (NRSVCE); also on prospective job growth, see the Bureau of Labor (BLS) stats on psychology, for example, or rehabilitation counselling
or especially marriage and family therapists, which shows an extremely high prospective growth rate over the next eight to 10 years, all of which far outpace the expected growth of eight percent in the area of clergy.  Note from BLS: “Clergy conduct religious worship and perform other spiritual functions associated with beliefs and practices of religious faith or denomination. Provide spiritual and moral guidance and assistance to members … 2016 employment: 243,900… Projected employment change, 2016–26: Number of new jobs: 19,900 Growth rate: 8 percent (as fast as average)”

² Kelley Shattuck, “7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America,” as accessed on 09/29/2018 at www.churchleaders.com

³ As reported by the American Psychological Association, “Survey Says More Americans are Seeking Mental Health Treatment,” as accessed online on 09/29/2018 at www.apa.org


For previous articles in this series, go to:

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part I

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part II

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part III

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part IV

Crazy Life: Sally Dumped and Deserted

Crazy Life: Ecclesia et Mentis Morbum

Crazy Life: Just Can’t Say ‘No’

Crazy Life: Ecclesia et Mentis Morbum

I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.
~ Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ

Playing on the words of the Messiah, I could very well say to clergymen/women and laity alike, “I was sick and committed, and you did not visit or minister to me… We were mentally and emotionally ailing … and hurting, suffering, yet you do not seem to care, or even give us a second thought. What must we do to deserve the ministry of the Church?” And yet again, Jesus weeps.

Amy Simpson hit the proverbial nail on the head when she surmised that “in general, the church tends to handle mental illness in one of three ways: ignore it, treat it exclusively as a spiritual problem, or refer (the suffering) to professionals and wash (their collective) hands of (the) trouble.”¹ Except instead of “ignoring it” she could have/should have been more pointed and said, “ignoring them.

StetzerAnd it is all-too-easy for superficially spiritual, religious individuals to ignore those with mental illness, unless of course they are disturbed and maladjusted right smack-dab in the middle of their communities, be that the neighborhood or the local church or wherever else. It’s almost like a toddler’s game: If they put their hands over their ears and shut their eyes, then the mentally ill have gone away … vanished … no longer exist.

As for her second point, Ed Stetzer certainly agrees. Recalling challenges with mental illness early in his ministry, he honestly confesses, “I was 25 years old, and all I had heard about dealing with mental illness was that Christians just ‘prayed it away,’ or it was an attack of the enemy, or so I’d been told, and the necessary response was expulsion — just cast it out.”² (The “enemy” being Satan, the devil, or demons.)

The third response listed by Simpson is, perhaps, the easiest: Just confine “them” to an institution, group home, and/or day treatment program and … forget about them. After all, “they” are being helped by professionals, right? So why would I want or feel the need to get involved? I haven’t been trained to be involved. I wouldn’t know what to do or say, and it can’t be as easy as simply loving, spending time, and encouraging … can it?

Of course, it helps to be as prepared as one can because, obviously, the different mental illnesses can be difficult to deal with, not to mention quite disconcerting (in many cases.) Yet from my own personal experience, which most certainly counts for something, most group home residents, and even individuals in the psychiatric wing of hospitals, would just be grateful and happy to have someone from the “outside” visiting them. Yes, there are extreme cases in which it is effectively impossible to visit, but really, in most instances, the mentally ailing are fully able to communicate!

And there is that famous, and popular, question many Christians like to ask: What would Jesus do? They even have WWJD stickers, ball caps, shirts, arm bands, etc. Oh, it’s quite “the thing” in many religious circles … but one is justified in wondering how often the “believer” actually answers the question … still more, how often s/he puts that answer into practice, especially where the mentally suffering are concerned.

And just what would Jesus do? I think he would at least visit, and it’s no good to simply assume one is not allowed. I know for a fact that, at least from my own experience, practically anyone could have dropped by the Samson Group Home to visit on the front porch … especially members of the clergy. There are no laws or restrictions against visiting group homes here, anyway, at least not pastors, priest, rabbis, imams, etc.

No … It’s just a matter of doing it! And even if the ostensibly spiritual-religious individual cannot visit a group home or hospital psych wing, the very least we/they can do is embrace the mentally anguished within our/their own faith communities, and, very importantly, do so in a dignified manner, (after all, many mentally ill individuals have practically been stripped of their personal dignity already!) Indeed, what would Jesus do? I really think he’s already answered that question… 


¹ A. Simpson, “Mental Illness: What is the Church’s Role?” as accessed on 09/25/2018 at qideas.org 

² Ed Stetzer, “A New Approach to Mental Illness in the Church,” as accessed on 09/25/2018 at christiaitytoday.com


For previous articles in this series, go to:

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part I

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part II

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part III

Crazy Life: My Testimony, Part IV

Crazy Life: Sally Dumped and Deserted

Qoheleth: Part A

An empty breath is life with vanity heaped upon vanity,
And all seems insanity as we march forward into death

One generation fades into oblivion as another fills its place,
But the world eternally remains in earth and sea and space,
And the face of the sun shines along a fine circuit by design,
Always to rise, always to set — to begin again once again —
As the wind blows south, then north, turning and churning,
Returning to burning land, seas and hills with terrible trills;
And rivers flow all into the ocean, yet the ocean never fills,
And then the ocean delivers its waters to the rivers to flow
And to show how mighty are they below surface so serene;
Yet are all creatures ever turbulent, creation insubordinate,
And the eye of man is never sated, but by temptation baited,
While the ear has truncated voices of virtue created by God,
Animated and articulated for all of humanity so devastated;
Yet whatever has been will be so again — time without end —
Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun,
For what was begun before will begin again;
Indeed, some say, “Look at this! Look at that!” but what of it?
We covet creativity and a birth of something worth our life,
But we have only some short time before the last bell chimes,
And there will be no memory of our lifetimes upon this earth,
And there is no expectation of some to come in coming days…

An empty breath is life with vanity heaped upon vanity,
And all seems insanity as we march forward into death

Simulacrum: Shadows Passing Shadows

“But if that is the case,” he asked himself, “and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters, what then?” He lay on his back and began to review his whole life in an entirely different light.

When, in the morning, he saw first the footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every gesture, their every word, confirmed the horrible truth revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself, all he had lived by, saw clearly that all this was not the real thing but a dreadful, enormous deception that shut out both life and death.

— From “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Leo Tolstoy

Frosted windows open on snow-covered plains so barren and lonely, with the far horizon so thickly gray, with the assurance of more of the same, and all is as silent as death, so silent that even the voice of God cannot be heard. We need life. We need life.

Shadows passing shadows in the shades of shadow trees. Life is a vapor. Mostly ghostly and blithely ignorant, they know something is missing, these spectators of men. And again the church bell tolls for another someone who never lived but finally died. And the gray coffin is lowered into black earth as phantoms cast forth hollow eulogies beneath the dancing shades of the same shadow trees.

The sun rises on an empty beach on an empty Sunday, where the waves make no sound, and the preacher stands perched on the podium preaching redemption to reprobates who cannot hear. But they pad the pews and smile self-righteous smiles, while girls grunge with Jesus round their necks.

Boys and girls dance round the boy, poking and prodding, teasing and laughing — laughing and teasing, prodding and poking as the dance goes on and the tears freely flow. There is pain and suffering driving the victim insane, but does anybody care? He will take his own miserable life, but will any mourn his passing?

jollain_hyacintheAnd the lovely Hyacinthus, radiant reflection of Beauty, draws his last breath as Apollo weeps for love lost and the world buckles at the passing of the divinely desirable boy, even as his blood gives birth to the flowers that will forever bear his name.

Two hearts bleeding. Two souls suffering. Two minds reeling. Two bodies slowly losing feeling. Two lovers void of love, rolling one over the other, making lust in a haversack with hyacinth in their hair. This is the memorial they offer the boy, who now joins as one with Mother Gaia.

A firefly crawls across the concrete, dying in the heat, but no one hears the slowing heartbeat of another life worth less than three-pence, delivered to deconstruction in total destruction as the thrawn sun thrashes its body at dawn.

Blocks of brick are stacked on blocks of brick, as below asphalt streets burn in the glaring sun. Alleyways are filled with scattered litter blown in from shattered lives, and the moon is full at the witching hour.

Smoke rises from the smoldering city as ash rains down thicker than the citizens, who run to their own burial for cover without looking back to see poppies growing in war-scarred fields. Their translucent bodies back into the black of cavernous caves, where they bark against the darkness.

The emptiness of existence is heavy. The vacancy of persistence in existence tangible and terrible, but do they even know … these passing shadows? Do they even know the profundity of the gaping hole in their soul? Can they feel the absence, and if so, do they know what left the better part of their heart so damn cold … these passing shadows?

Women and men, soldiers and scholars, priests and pious hypocrites stand beneath a rugged Roman cross, and what do they see, but Life nailed to wood for the sake of life? But do they even know … these passing shadows? Do they even know they need a savior? Do we know…?

The Evangelical Rump of Trump

Can we expect an unprincipled man to lead with wholesome values? Can we expect an immoral leader to lead with virtue? Can we expect an arrogant and domineering man to lead in the humility of a servant? No, and yet the vast majority of evangelical Christians are doing just this, having sold their souls, and sullied their reputation, in following Donald Trump with a loyalty that would impress Napoleon Bonaparte.

Once upon a time, evangelicals were known for their adherence to Holy Scripture and Biblical standards of living. They were committed to “demonstrat[ing] that Jesus is real and that his salvation radically changes … lives through … faith, actions, service, relationships and community…”[i] And an integral part of this involved living a virtuous life, as well as promoting such virtues in the larger society.[ii]

Now, however, the larger part of the evangelical Christian culture in America has taken a fortress mentality, surrounding itself and the current President with unquestioning and practically unbelievable walls of defense, not only overlooking Trump’s obvious blemishes, but also somehow excusing his blatantly anti-Christian attitudes, perspectives and actions:

Trump’s unapologetic materialism—his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth—is a negation of Christian teaching. His tribalism and hatred for “the other” stand in direct opposition to Jesus’s radical ethic of neighbor love. Trump’s strength-worship and contempt for “losers” smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ.[iii]

And how any self-respecting American, much less an evangelical Christian, can do anything less than cringe at the innumerable kitschy tweets, caustic remarks, unbridled imprudence, and callous quips is beyond imagination. But “the moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption,” according to self-professing, evangelical Michael Gerson.[iv]

Then again, evangelical associations, groups and leaders have benefitted from Trump in very tangible ways. For example, the Donald J. Trump Foundation donated $10,000 to Iowa’s Family Leader (in 2013), $10,000 to Samaritan’s Purse (2013), and a whopping $100,000 to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (2013). On top of this, Trump drew the largest convocation audience in the history of Liberty University in 2012, and was referred to by Jerry Falwell Jr. as “one of the great visionaries of our time.”[v] And yet as Gerson points out:

Trump’s court evangelicals have become active participants in the moral deregulation of our political life. Never mind whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, and whatever is of good repute. Some evangelicals are busy erasing bright lines and destroying moral landmarks. In the process, they are associating evangelicalism with bigotry, selfishness and deception. They are playing a grubby political game for the highest of stakes: the reputation of their faith.[vi]

And this is a high-stakes game that the evangelical Christian community is already losing, as witnessed by the continuing, mass exodus of professing Christians from traditional, evangelical churches.[vii] There is an undeniable hemorrhaging that can only be stopped by evangelicals actually being  what they profess to be, and genuinely living the way they say they believe Christians ought to live … and this decidedly does not include playing the rump of Trump.


 

[i] William Dyrness and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Global Dictionary of Theology, 298

[ii] David J. Atkinson, David F. Field, Arthur Holmes, Oliver O’Donovan, New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, 881

[iii] Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation: How Evangelicals, Once Culturally Confident, Became an Anxious Minority Seeking Political Protection From the Least Traditionally Religious President in Living Memory,” The Atlantic, April 2018 Issue as published at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/04/the-last-temptation/554066/

[iv] Ibid

[v] Betsy Woodruff, “Why Evangelicals Worship Trump,” The Daily Beast, August 2015 as published at https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-evangelicals-worship-trump

[vi] Michael Gerson, “The Trump Evangelicals Have Lost Their Gag Reflex,” The Washington Post, January 22, 2018, as published at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-trump-evangelicals-have-lost-their-gag-reflex/2018/01/22/761d1174-ffa8-11e7-bb03-722769454f82_story.html?utm_term=.2c9d531bb063

[vii] Terry Heaton, “Evangelical Christianity’s Big Turn-Off,” Huffington Post, September 12, 2017, as published at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/evangelical-christianitys-big-turn-off_us_59b2b0f3e4b0bef3378cdf91

Priests and the Cry of Innocence

With all their might they pushed crimes out of sight
And chose to fight the light back into the darkness,
Leaving the carcass of truth in the starkest of graves,
But who will save them from the waves of justice,
Which finally come from cries of innocence violated
And annihilated for the satisfaction of perversity
That so harmfully cast itself upon those weakest
And meekest within the very Household of God?
Surely damnation will come to such beastly priests,
And angels will rock the foundation of all creation