Where is God on Good Friday?

Crucifixion 1946 by Graham Sutherland OM 1903-1980

“Crucifixion” by Graham Sutherland
Art on board, c. 1947

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

It hits the ear like a loss of faith. A moment of extreme doubt giving way to exasperation, to anger, perhaps. It hangs in the air, this outburst, heavy like smoke on a windless field. God, I thought we had a deal! My enemies are all around me. My persecutors have nailed me to a tree. I loved them. I prayed for them. WHERE ARE YOU?

Scholars have even given this saying from the cross a fancy name: the cry of dereliction.

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.

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

The cry of dereliction. Dereliction, a word that has two meanings. The first is a feeling of abandonment. We can imagine that is where Jesus is at; his Gethsemane moment has reappeared. He’s bereft. The second meaning, though, is part of what makes Good Friday so difficult. Dereliction also means to shirk one’s duty. In this situation, Jesus is not the one who is found wanting. Where is God on Good Friday?

Before continuing it is important to establish that the cry of dereliction is the opening lines of Psalm 22. It is a prayer of deliverance, a prayer uttered from the depths of pain with the confident assurance that God will act in the present or very near future because God faithfully has acted in the past. We have nothing except the hope produced by pain and memories.

In Mark’s Gospel, the first in the canon to report the crucifixion, Jesus only utters the first line of Psalm 22. It can be argued that Jesus starts the psalm aloud and then continues it in his head or cries out the first line with the expectation that others will understand that, despite his horrid circumstances, he has retained full faith in God. And that’s a perfectly logical, theologically sound interpretation.

But I’ll be honest, that doesn’t work for me. At least not this year. I don’t know why, but God and I just aren’t on the same page. There have been some trying ministry situations over the past few weeks and for whatever reasons my spiritual well seems to be have run dry. God and I are missing each other, leaving messages on the machine.

This is the first Holy Week in my life that I have not felt profoundly close to God.

The cry of dereliction reminds us that sometimes the memory of God is all we’ve got. Like a faded black and white photograph that we didn’t store very well, coffee stains and yellowing about to kill what time hasn’t already taken, a phantasmal memory that haunts us and taunts us, remaining just out of our mind’s grasp. God. It can be easy to feel forgotten.

Psalm 22 is asking us to begin praising God on the cross because God has shown up in the past and will show up again. And there are lots of pastors tonight preaching that sermon and I say, God bless. It is a good sermon. But I can’t preach it because I’m still in the cry of dereliction.

Good Friday challenges us to look at our expectations of God. When we feel distant, what do we remember? When we have an Easter hope, to what does it point? I think we have to talk about what we mean when we say God will show up again. Because it is easy to make false promises, to boast and be grandiose about what God will do on Easter, but the truth is our lived faith often is much more subtle and dirty. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling Good Friday more this year than I am Easter Sunday.

So where is God on Good Friday?

Jesus does not pray the entire psalm aloud. He just prays the cry of dereliction, which seems to indicate that he’s not quite in the praising mood. Jesus is able to have his moment of doubt and pain, and it does not stop the power of resurrection. In Jesus’ experience of dereliction, God is already at work on the transformation that will occur Easter morning. The two are not mutually exclusive. The resurrection is in the offing. While Jesus suffers, feeling alone, God is preparing a place of glory.

This can sound kind of like empty promises if we regard God as a genie. The chaos and quandary of the cross are exactly this: they make no sense; the horror of God sending God’s son to die such a death defies logic, yet it perfectly exemplifies the eternal majesty of divine love. Nothing can kill it. And when we submit to it completely, we are granted everlasting life. perfect love remains even when we are overcome with alienating pain.

For me, this year, the cry of dereliction is especially potent: Jesus feels that human desperation, that disconnect, that panic, that summoning of faith that must happen when derelict. Sometimes all we have is the memory of a whisper, a memory of a whisper that our joy comes on Easter, that there will be confirmation again that God makes miracles, in the ways we least expect them, but right now all we have is the cry of dereliction. And that’s enough. Amen.

Roadtripping with Bipolar

ubcutsTomorrow I leave for Winston–Salem, NC for the final mid–semester intensive before I defend my dissertation in August, God willing and if the creek don’t rise. For the first time, we are gathering with other cohorts for a church conference co-sponsored by United Theological Seminary and Union Baptist Church, pastored by Bishop Dr. Sir Walter Mack, who is a longtime mentor at the seminary. In theory, I really want to go.

But there’s also reality. I’m on two new medications, something about which I wrote two days ago, which brings me up to a grand total of ten. Two meds have to be taken with food, one has to be taken an hour before food, seven have the side effect of dizziness, four can cause edema, five can cause drowsiness, and I’m a bit uncertain how these two new ones are going to interact with everything else as it has only been a few days since I started taking them.

I also have problems with large crowds, which sucks because I grew up following Bob Dylan. I’ve seen him live thirty-two times, and it isn’t more because I had to stop a decade ago. I have a pretty kick-ass live show list, but those days are gone. Add to my growing agoraphobia, severe tinnitus, hyperacusis, declining hearing, and tactile issues, events with lots of noise and people are an energy-draining nightmare for me, especially if Miriam is not with me to be an assuring and reassuring buffer.

I used to really like road trips by myself. I’m an introvert who likes complete control over the radio. Of course, we all have the same prep: do we bring food, or eat on the road? Since starting a keto diet, I am decidedly a “bring food” person. Today I finally have to face the wreck that is my car. I still have stuff in there from Julius Caesar, and by “stuff” I mean LaCroix cans and unwashed costume pieces. I am much less anxious driving in a clean car.

Since becoming sick, road trips are exhausting endeavors filled with contingency plans. What if I get too dizzy or fatigued and can’t make the drive in one day? I’ve already scouted hotels along the way and will get up early to make the opening worship. What if I have a bipolar episode, need help, but am unable to communicate? Miriam can track my phone and we’ll check in every hour until I get there. If I don’t respond within half an hour, she’ll know my location and can call for help.

I hope this week is a positive experience, but truth be told I am just hoping to get through it and back home safely. I don’t have children, So I don’t have to negotiate those challenges. I can only imagine the stress and exhaustion. I write as a chronically ill person finishing a doctorate. As a result of my own experiences, I think I am now more sensitive and aware of what I don’t know about others. Sometimes, showing up is the greatest thing a person can give. The energy I will expend just to show up dressed and with a smile on my face is enough to warrant another eight hours of sleep.

At this point, I don’t know what my level of participation and engagement will be; I hope high. Regardless, as I continue to discern God’s presence in life’s challenges, I am increasingly aware of how important it is to be kind to someone who is late, or who arrives a bit disheveled, or who may fall asleep during an event. Too often we assume laziness, poor organizational skills, or incompetence. We so often err on the side of cruelty.

My thyroid and medications are conspiring to tip me over 300 lbs. I’m constantly cold. I hear multiple high-pitched tones all the timealong with two other manifestations of tinnitus, from moment-to-moment I ward off panic attacks, I’m frightened to speak on the phone. I need a ridiculously powerful sleeping pill to sleep, yet I am deeply exhausted most of my waking hours. This is on good days. I push through all of this because life is beautiful. My being there is a sign that I care, that I’m engaged, just like everyone else.

I also call off. I lose focus. It can take me days to make a phone call because my anxiety is so high. I can be so exhausted it is perhaps unpleasant to speak with me because I look sick and/or disinterested. I forget things, misremember details, and can become confused and overwhelmed in certain situations. For all the positives you get with me, there is a growing list of negatives. I’m discovering that’s how it is with chronic illness, the greatest of which, for me, is Bee-Dee.

There are people who go through so much more than what I describe. So. Much. More. But that’s kind of the point. Our culture is cruel. We don’t have to be.

Sick, Broke, and Exhausted: My “daily sob story”

Sick, Broke, and Exhausted: My “daily sob story”

I was recently told by someone whom I considered a good friend that I have a “daily sob story.” As we parted company, he said he won’t miss it and used a colorful term to paint me as one who cries hysterically at the smallest thing. I wish I could say that I was able to brush it aside as I do many other bombs that are lobbed at me with some regularity, but I haven’t. It hit my soft underbelly. Like many people living with chronic illness, diagnoses don’t stop with the “big one.” Systemic issues reveal themselves, sometimes through drug interactions, sometimes through the stabilization of primary symptoms that allow secondary ones to manifest more clearly. Sometimes a fresh hell is asymptomatic and is simply an unpleasant surprise.

Let me start out by saying that there are millions of people who have more complicated diagnoses, who do not have access to the same quality care, who do not have supportive family, friends, and colleagues, or the ability to advocate on their own behalf. Frankly, it is sad that we’ve turned illness into a competition in which we have to qualify or defend our own realities lest we seem like we’re complainers looking for attention. That was essentially the accusation levied at me, one made a few months ago that still hurts enough that I am writing about it now, less than twenty-four hours after a new diagnosis.

For those who may not know, here’s my deal. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder three years ago. I had been self-medicating with alcohol for years, which I continued to drink through the first year of my diagnosis. The initial mood stabilizer I was on, Geodon, caused me to have a nervous breakdown and I contracted viral conjunctivitis, a rare side effect, which did not do much to improve my mental state. I had to resign from a job that helped me pay for insurance. During this time, I gained 20lbs. I then switched to Lithium, which has been great at stabilizing my mood, but in three years I have gained 50lbs. I’m on three other medications to help manage my bipolar depression and General Anxiety Disorder.

My exhaustion level for the past few years has been pretty much beyond description. I’ve battled insomnia most of my life; natural and over-the-counter remedies do not work for me, and because of my weight I snore like all three stooges. I had two sleep studies late last year (just in time for the charges to be applied to the 2017 deductible, charges we’ll be paying off through 2020) that revealed I stop breathing 133x/hour. Diagnosis: severe sleep apnea. The CPAP machine is amazing and I use it religiously, but my exhaustion still remains. I take a sleeping pill with a dosage that made the nurse at my doctor’s office say, “Wow.”

Since I was a child, I have had problems with my ears. I was told that I would most likely lose my hearing around the age of 60; granted, this was in the early 80s and we have amazing treatments and hearing aids now. With that said, I have severe tinnitus, hyperacuity, and I need to have tubes put in every year (my hearing is declining rapidly, but the tubes should restore about 25%). There’s other stuff: I have become hypertensive. I have edema problems. Psoriasis. I just received a new diagnosis (see below). I am currently on ten medications.

Here’s the deal: I know that there are a lot of people who deal with many of these conditions individually or in combination. Some may deal with them all. I don’t believe I am special and I’m not asking for pity. I just want to make that clear, although I doubt it will stop the jackasses from making jackass comments.

When someone has the courage to speak up and say, “I’ve got some shit wrong with me and I’m not doing so well today,” I think the decent thing to do is not to belittle that person for being sick. Granted, my primary illness is a mental one. I see a therapist every week and I spend a lot of time trying to work through my paranoia and defensiveness, but it is fucking devastating to be ridiculed for sharing one’s struggles.

Chances are, there is someone in your life who is sick, broke, and tired. The energy it takes me to call the insurance company to appeal a decision is legion, and I ain’t got many. From the moment I wake up, I am thinking about how to time my meds, my meals, my water intake, how to manage if certain symptoms arise, feeling guilt and shame that I am unable to do the things I promised I could do because, well, because I’m sick, broke, and tired.

This week I began two new meds. The first is a new mood stabilizer that is weight negative that we hope will be able to replace Lithium, but that transition will be slow. The second is for my new diagnosis, a hypoactive thyroid. This could be the root problem of the weight gain, exhaustion, joint pain. Anybody who is on multiple medications knows that it is a bit of a roulette. This comes at a particularly bad time, as next week I am driving down to Winston-Salem for the mid-semester intensive for my doctoral program. I am terrified that I will not be able to make the drive in one go—I once had to stop overnight in Columbus on a trip to Cleveland—or that I will have dizziness, fatigue, confusion, etc. while I am there. Yet, if I miss the event, I have to repeat the semester, which simply is not an option.

I write this in hopes that at least one person will stop and think before they say something nasty to a person who deals with chronic illness. Stress is a killer. Feeling guilt and shame for simply stating facts about your life is bullshit. If nothing else, if I can’t reach the jackasses doing their jackassery, perhaps I can reach others who want to ven but feel they can’t: own your truth, you’re not alone, and I’m here whenever you want to kvetch.

Living with Phantoms

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There was a ghost haunting my crib in the winter of 1977. The year of the blizzard. The Big One Ohioans all over the state still talk about; statewide, and we’s a big state. Everyone, even those in cribs, has stories about the blizzard of ’77. Hundreds of miles away in a motel room in Minnesota my paternal uncle lay dead in a bathtub.

There’s one picture of us. He’s holding me in swaddling clothes. There’s no mistaking the family resemblance that I would grow into during the years that he was not there. I’ve stared at that picture for hours, wondering if in a cosmic moment something passed between us. And whether before my uncle left this realm, God laid down snowfall to make the Finnish spirit more comfortable for his journey? I’ve projected upon that picture a meaningful look, a recognition of what it means to live with phantoms. My brother, who was not of my uncle’s blood, was brought into the fold by his own suicide. I’ve long lived with phantoms.

There are new ones, though, that come only when you are diseased of mind. Only when you are touched in the head, only when God gives you a double-portion, only when you no longer can tell what is real and what is of the phantom.

From the Greek φάντασμα, the Latin fantauma, phantoms have been with us for millennia. Like the fourth rider in Revelation. Ring wraiths. Dementors. The Grim Reaper. They secret themselves, you see. That’s what you must understand: their horror is not in the terror you feel upon seeing them suddenly, it is in the horror of realizing they have been with you all along.

The new phantoms are ones I did not see coming. Ones that are taking over my body, making me question my sense experiences. If you were to ask me how I feel, I would say like a can of paint on a mixing machine, but my body betrays no such state. My hand might shake a little, but nothing like it feels insideIs it the disorder? Is it the meds? Is there something else going on?

Living with phantoms is never easy. They pay no rent but take up too much space.

Bad Puckles: Bee-Dee Part Deux

bipolar sucks

When Miriam was a child, she used to communicate that she was not feeling well by claiming she had “bad puckles.” This has become a shorthand for us when one or the other is ill; overwhelmingly, that person is me.

I got bad puckles, mama.

Here we are again. My life has come to a screeching halt. All the usual suspects are present: Dizziness, difficulty speaking, lost time, nausea, exhaustion. Tinnitus is a one-man-band that could fill Radio City Music Hall with whooshing, chirping, and feedback. Relative newcomers palsy and muscle spasms love their new playmates. Of course, insomnia is always the ring-leader. Y’all gonna make me lose my mind, up in here, up in here. 

This morning we can add stress and anxiety, those old standbys that make a bad situation that much worse. Feelings of incompetence, weakness, confusion, panic, and desperation don’t do much but push me back every step or two. This is happening more often, Aaron. You know that right? Symptoms are becoming more pronounced and appear with frequency. You are realizing that, right? Right? 

Right.

Today I am supposed to go to a bi-monthly meeting. I missed the last one because of my health. There is no way that I can drive an hour to go be around a few dozen people in a sanctuary when I am in this condition. I would have a complete breakdown. But I am so tired of sending emails, apologizing for my illness, assuring people that I will be at the next event. I recognize that some of that neurosis comes from me, but not all. It’s hard to have an invisible illness because there is always that sense from others that I might just be making this up. Or exaggerating. Or using it as an excuse to get out of things.

You forgot to mention that you can’t handle being touched, that your skin is on fire, and that your muscles are so fatigued from spasms and clenching that you feel like you’re back in your powerlifting days.   

I tell you, I would attend big, loud meetings every Friday for 8 hours until I die if it meant that I could be loosed of these conditions. I feel so helpless when that which opposes me comes from inside my very cells; there is not an opponent I can see, can identify and deconstruct. There are no rational arguments that can be issued that will break down bipolar disorder and my other conditions. They rest right under the skin, they pollute my blood, they distort my sense experiences.

I write because that is what I’ve been told to do. I am now exhausted. Sweat is running down my face but I am cold. It has taken me 10 minutes to write this sentence, which is a sentence about writing a sentence that I cannot write, yet I write to prove that I can write so, therefore, I guess I’m still a writer. Got that?

I have therapy tomorrow. A message is in with GP, although there is not much that can be done. Maybe a med tweak or something to help me sleep, as very little does.

I think I have met all the major deadlines, so today I will be relatively off-grid and be trying to sleep and recover. I’ll check in within 24-hours. If I’m forgetting something, let me know and I’ll address it as quickly as I can.

Be well, do good works, and love one another. I’ll try to do the same.

Like Billy Dee, but, you know, a mental illness

Bipolar has me by the balls right now. One moment I am hungry, the next moment I am stopping myself from cooking because I need to watch an episode of House of Cards I have seen over thirty times. No joke. When I finally fall asleep, I wake up and must move from the couch to the bed, or vice-versa, even though the effort zaps any energy I’ve mustered. No rational explanation to myself from myself will work. The need wins.

It is a most inconvenient week for BD to visit.That’s what I call it. BD. So as to not fall off the cliff, I make jokes with myself. It helps me cope. I often imitate Mama Klump when it’s really bad, like today.

billy dee 2

Bee-Dee, Bee-Dee, Bee-Dee!!

See, my doctoral cohort is here and I tried to make it on both Tuesday and Wednesday. I was there but had to leave. Today I couldn’t make it at all, and tomorrow doesn’t look any better. I’m supposed to speak at an anti-white supremacy rally tomorrow night but now I don’t think it will be possible. This could be a humdinger.

I’m writing because it helps me to feel less guilty if I produce something; in-between naps that are more like hallucinations, I’m writing surveys for the upcoming project and sending emails. That can be dangerous, too. Emails get me in trouble sometimes, so I am not sending anything sensitive or potentially confrontational. Now I’m writing about writing, so that’s my meta moment for the day.

That’s my time, folks. Thank you so much for coming out, be sure to tip your servers and bartenders. I’m Meta-Moment, reminding you that the next show is completely different from this show. 

Except it’s not. Not really. Details alter, but the broad strokes are painted in the same ink. There comes a time in which a mental illness is like that friend you love but exhausts the shit out of you. I had one of those and after years of abusing one another, I said enough. We haven’t spoken in 9 years. I still think about them, remembering the positives but also the depths of pain and anger. BD is like that, but we can’t get rid of one another. I take pills everyday, and I often quote one of my favorite films as I do so.

Shut your mouth, Bee-Dee. You’re embarrassing yourself.

BD bides time, building energy like XP to level-up and attack me like a Dungeon Master rolling simultaneous 20s. I’ve got chain-mail on over here and no one in my party has anything more potent than Arya Stark’s Pencil. I know, mixed genres but what are you going to do? Regardless, BD is like a horde of orcs trying to take Hogwarts while Voldemort battles with Yoda in Narnia. There. That should sufficiently confuse and upset my fellow dorks 😉

Because that’s what BD does. It takes the things in your life and confuses them. But not all the time. Yes, I want to break up with BD right now. Very strongly so. But there are positives. Last week I was called a “genius” by three separate people in three separate contexts. And not the, “You’re a genius!” because I figured out how to get the chips to fall in a vending machine. I shy away from this language; I’m uncomfortable with it, but I understand that people mean it sincerely and I try to accept it without believing it. What I do believe, though, is that a not insignificant amount of what people like about me is owed to my BD. I don’t know how to exist without it.

Mimi and I are in the process of watching Gone With the Wind together. We’ve obviously seen it numerous times individually. When I was 5 I made my Grandma Hilda call me Rhett and she was Aunt Pitty-Pat. Watching it this time, Mimi and I cannot go two or three minutes without commenting on how racist and damaging the film has been in many regards. But Vivien Leigh. Oh, Vivien Leigh. Mimi and I are both huge fans of her work. Scarlett is a simply atrocious human being and while the role is what made Leigh a star, she spent her whole life playing parts that could elicit great emotion. From Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams, she was mistress of the theater. Her film career was notable, but she was a lady who trod the boards. She felt hampered by her beauty because she was, above all things, an actor.

And she had bipolar disorder. Her ability to play mercurial characters and to tap into the emotions of others with the simple raise of an eyebrow was most certainly born of the illness. When I awoke on Wednesday, I knew that things were about to get worse. I tried to push through but BD was a roaring dragon. I used that in my portrayal of Caesar this past summer. You never know when you’re going to get struck, and you never know how you might respond.

Bee-Dee is making demands again, so I must log off and tend to the ridiculous quirks that sometimes feel like the only thing keeping me from the hospital. I’ll write again from the fires of Mordor, waiting for Spock to throw the Elder Wand into the Sarlacc pit and win the heart of the Mother of Dragons.

On Christology, Part I: Eyerollers Welcome

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I love Jesus.

I also understand that the statement makes a good number of people cringe. This makes sense, given that it so often is followed by judgmental statements meant to describe the flaws of those on the receiving end of the invective. I don’t love that Jesus. I don’t even want to know him.

But if you want to understand me you’ll come to understand that I love Jesus. My well-known conversion story–schizophrenic brother committed suicide and I began my fifteen-year path to the pastorate–is part of it. I wrestled intellectually with the Jesus I believed in for years; my doctrine was sound, but my life was not. The process of submitting to God unfolded over the course of years and would be as tedious to read as it would be to write; suffice it to say, after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was able to take the necessary steps to create a life that allows me to live with health issues: Therapy with an amazing doctor; a medication protocol that strikes a good balance between managing the most troublesome aspects of bipolar and not so heavily altering my mental state that I lose a sense of self; recognizing and actualizing the need to work exclusively in the village; communicating clearly (and apologizing when I don’t) my needs when bipolar is winning; and myriad other issues.

But the biggest change has been quitting drinking. I tried for years to quit. I would make promises to myself and others that I would break. I let my alcoholism impact all areas of life, dragging others into it as well. My first marriage ended for many reasons, but the biggest was I chose alcohol over everything else, even when I acted like that was not the case. I didn’t do it maliciously–few drunks do–but as soon as I was able to regulate the need to drink because of mental health issues, the final piece necessary to quit was in place.

I attribute all of that to Jesus.

Christology literally means “words about Christ.” In seminary, all students are required to take at least one course in systematic theology, which involves writing a synthesized explanation for the major questions that arise when talking about belief in the Christian God. It is impossible to write a cohesive systematic theology by compartmentalizing each aspect. What one believes about Jesus informs what one believes about the sacraments, the means of grace and salvation, theological anthropology, and the ends of existence. I had this sorted out intellectually, but four years ago I began to feel the need to no longer just preach and teach, but rather to live the principles embodied in and through Jesus Christ.

Regular readers of the blog or those who know me irl will know about the Beloved Community Project. I have thrown myself into the life of the village because I believe that God has provided me the milieu in which I can preach the gospel through the work I do, most often without even saying the name of Jesus. As we’ll talk about in this series, I believe the statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But I do not believe that it indicates the exclusive passage a spiritual life. In following Jesus, I have discovered that the truth is almost always found by following love. I have discovered that a rich, meaningful life is, as Jesus says, understanding that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” I am a Son of Man, the male offspring of a male father–there are multiple ways in which the term is used in biblical documents; in the book of Ezekiel, we see the example I employ above–and by trying to serve various communities, I feel more alive than ever.

But I don’t think everyone will necessarily experience this, nor do I think that my approach is superior to others simply because I believe in Jee-suhs.

I have been a biblical scholar for most of my career; I wrestle with the Bible each and every week I am in the pulpit, which is most Sundays. I take the Bible seriously, but not so I can condemn others to hell while ignoring my own legion of sin. I read the Bible because it helps me in this deconstruction of a false self and the taking on of Christ, like a warm cloak over my cold flesh. I preach to share history, theory, words of comfort, and to issue loving commandments to take Christ into the community with us, ears opened and mouths shut. St. Francis is ever my pastor: Preach the gospel at all times, Aaron, and for God’s sake shut up unless words are absolutely necessary. 

This project will reflect the tangy mix that is Pastor Aaron (PA). I love theology and sharing ideas with people; I’m a pastoral theologian. I have little use for theology that does not help us live the gospel in our lives, as we are able and as we discern; the Jesus I know helps me to view situations with a long view toward love, he gives me a nudge when I’m acting selfishly or Iif  am benefitting from myriad privileges because it is just easier to remain quiet; and he, in ways I will explain, brings me the greatest and most overwhelming joy in life.

I know, I used to roll my eyes, too. And I totally understand if you just did. Christians and Christianity deserve the disdain and skepticisms many hold. I never run away from that here, which is easy because I do not have the “goal” of converting anyone. I plan to explicate my working Christology here, so when I go out into the world I can focus on being a servant in the ways that people need. I hope that you’ll come on the journey, and please feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.

Stop Killing Us: Privilege Don’t Cure Bipolar Disorder

Trigger warning: real, emotionally-charged talk about fears of violence; mention, but with graphic details embedded within a link, of persons with bipolar disorder being killed by the police; and discussion of fears in calling police for help as a person with bipolar disorder. Hopeful payoff: resources and encouragement to help bring about a change. Also, the International Bipolar Foundation passed on publishing this; I am not going to comment or speculate as to why, other than to say that I am deeply disappointed with this decision. But the organization does great work, so I post this in its original version while lamenting that it sat for a week only to be rejected. Alas, such is the nature of writing and activism I guess. 

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 I can be annoying. I won’t shut up about things like race relations, GLBTQ+ issues, mental health awareness, Muslim-Christian relations, and a whole host of other issues that tend to be hot button. And also tend to be fraught with threats of violence. My hero is MLK, and my life is dedicated to Jesus. I just don’t shut up about things I believe God requires of me. Suffice it say, I am used to being threatened with violence.

Let me be absolutely clear, though. I am a “white,” Christian, American cisgender male married to a woman. My bisexuality can easily be hidden, although I do not hide it, so I do not face many of the same dangers that a vast majority of my community faces. I wear a Black Lives Matter shirt, but not Black skin. I have grown a beard and wear a head covering to act in solidarity with my Muslim and Sikh brothers, but can always shave both my beard and my locs. I have an incredible amount of privilege, including from my education and the cosmic lottery I won to get great parents and an amazing community of people focused on justice, love, equality, and truth. My brother in Christ Rev. Ramone Raschad Billingsley, writing from the margins, has helped me develop my own hermeneutical positioning: rooted in the center, I choose the margins. That is privilege, too. I can, at any point, retreat back to the center and reassume all of the privilege available to me.

My approach to life is pretty much about the opposite of that: I am going to use my privilege until I don’t have it any more.

When I write something like “Stop Killing Us” I am not in any way trying to supplant or deflect the very real conversations that need to happen in terms of addressing the terrifying plague of police violence on citizens of color, trans* persons, and other highly vulnerable populations that experience little to no privilege of any kind. And I most certainly am not attempting to thrust myself into a position in which I am claiming my fears are on par with those in said marginalized states.

What I am saying, though, is that violence against people with mental illness is at shocking levels. We are sixteen times more likely to be killed by police than are people without mental illness. I cannot lie and say that I don’t think about that every single time I leave my little village. To wit:

On September 30, 2016, Shainei Lindsay awoke with a fright in her Pasedena, California home because her husband, a man living with bipolar disorder, had called the police for help. You can read the heartbreaking details by clicking here. For those who want to continue this conversation but not be subjected to the terror of the situation, it will suffice to say that the man was killed. A father. A child of God. A man who had had interactions with the police before, but had never turned violent, at least according to initial reports. Brace yourself, but apologists and blind defenders of whatever police do will say that there weren’t other choices; that he should have been on his meds; that he should have complied; that he should have… Brace yourself, and then push back. Hard.

There is immediate, substantial, proven training for Mental Health First Aid. Where I live, police officers, bartenders, pastors, teachers, dispatchers, business owners, teachers, village employees, members of government, and nursing home professionals took a class together. Some people got scholarships provided by our local NAMI chapter. In fact, I lift up into the light our local NAMI chapter as an example of what can be done by a group of committed and educated citizens. Please, use these links. Familiarize yourself with the services already in your communities, or identify a need and discern if you are someone who can do something about it.

Because here is the truth. We can take our meds; we can be responsible with our mental health; but we cannot always predict what is going to happen to us. Sometimes a med stops working like it once did. Sometimes we can forget a dose, or our manias or depressions are stronger than they have been before. And sometimes we’re just terrified because, let’s be honest, living with bipolar disorder sometimes is terrifying. When we call for help, when we reach out, when we are being honest about the fact that we are not in our right minds, you have a fundamental responsibility to not kill us. There are so, so many more options before a gun needs to be drawn. And don’t be so quick to suggest the taser. I can almost guarantee that if I were tased in a mania, I would likely have a heart attack and die. But it doesn’t have to come to that; there are effective, proved methods of helping a person through a crisis. There are ways to create conditions that are safe for the afflicted, the officers attempting to provide help, others who might be in the area or involved in some way. We are not dealing with a great mystery. I personally know three dozen people I am very confident would have been able to resolve the situation with little to no violence. Why? Because they have the training. They have the relationships. They have the understanding that a person in crisis asking for help is holding a fire extinguisher because his mind is a landscape of terror I would not wish anyone to see. But I have seen it. And I will see it again.

Sadly, a friend and longtime resident of our village was killed in a police standoff.  We called him PaulE, and he had several diagnoses. Anyone who had lived here for more than fifteen years likely would have known that, and a whole bunch of people who have lived here for less time knew it. Didn’t stop his death. I have held the hand of PaulE’s mother as we both cry, and I have spoken with many of the officers who were there when the tragedy ended. They are haunted. They felt beholden to a process rather than attending to a person. When the tanks came and the helicopters flew overhead, and yet Paul’s mother was not allowed to speak to him and friends of his who are professional counselors were kept away, I wrote on a message board, “PaulE is never going to be taken alive. They have just given flesh to his deepest fear.”

No good police officer wants to kill a mentally ill person in crisis. We owe it to them to do everything we can to make sure these decisions only used as a last resort. Don’t accept the argument that a mentally ill person’s disconcerting, but not immediately lethal behavior is enough justification to shoot them. We cannot accept that low bar for a use of deadly force. It is time to demand, as Shaun King has eloquently set forth in his recent work, that police officers have four year degrees. That there be consistent and updated training in areas involving mental health assessments by officers. If the sight of a mentally ill person in distress is presented as sufficient cause for fear and bullets, we are going to see more and more tragedies. I have had enough of them for one lifetime, frankly.

I won’t shut up. And I know that we come to this place to feel better. I so appreciate the International Bipolar Foundation’s website, work, and witness. I’m honored to be a featured blogger. But I don’t shut up, friends. I’m annoying. I get it. But I also love deeply and passionately, and I care about the people in our community. Our lives matter. Our lives are not just to be lifted up as a reason for why we don’t need gun control. Right? How many times have we heard that? We need more money for mental health and more training. Great! It is available, but communities have to act. We have to push our legislators. We have to do what we can when we are healthy to make sure that when we’re not, we aren’t shot to death asking for help.

 

On Hinkley and Freddie

News outlet are reporting that John Hinkley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, is set to be released from a mental hospital after nearly 35 years of commitment to the psychiatric facility. The doctors in charge of his care declare that he is no longer suffering from depression and psychological delusions. For the past year, he has been living 17 days a month with his mother in Virginia. The Reagan Foundation has issued a statement saying they disagree with the doctors and the judge and declare that he is still a threat. So does that pile of human garbage that is running for president on the GOP ticket.

I don’t know what it is like to be shot. I don’t know what it is like to lose a person I love to gun violence. I am not doubting that for a few persons, although not Ronald Reagan who forgave Hinkley years ago, connected with the shooting there may still be strong feelings. And that is understandable. But on a day in which it is announced that while Freddie Gray was the victim of a homicide, not one single person seems to be responsible for his death, I am thinking that a man who was found not guilty by reason of insanity and served almost the whole of my lifetime in a facility, has earned the right to go home if actual medical professionals clear him. Because, sorry, I trust them a lot more than I do the people at the Reagan Foundation and Herr Drumpf. President Reagan and the other three victims saw justice served in their case. The Gray family is still waiting.

But this situation reveals some deep contradictions and hypocrisies in our country. First, a large number of citizens think that we are a Christian nation  but seem to forget that forgiveness it at the heart of the faith. Ronald Reagan knew it, and practiced it quickly. But 71% of Protestants and 68% of Catholics support the death penalty, which is indicative of a larger trend in this country: we like our justice retributive, not restorative. Second, Reagan’s own policies have caused the current crisis we face. Look at the rise in our private prisons, despite overwhelming evidence that they are rampant violators of human rights.  Look at the massive amounts of money taxpayers spend on incarceration, especially given that nearly 60% of those imprisoned are guilty of nonviolent offenses. In fact, Hinkley was lucky. An estimated 356,000 prisoners have serious mental illness but are not placed in institutions because of overcrowding and lack of facilities. Placing mentally ill persons in prison is a danger to themselves, other inmates, and institutional staff. And that rests squarely at the feet of the Reagan Administration and the GOP. Finally, we continue to perpetuate the notion that people cannot be rehabilitated. Returning citizens face legal, cultural, and societal stumbling blocks that make it difficult for them to reintegrate to life outside of prison. And despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly believe that the government should be providing more treatment and support to mentally ill persons, we still see that mental illness is grossly misunderstood. If it weren’t, people would accept that doctors who have been working with Hinkley for decades are in a much better position to determine his threat level to self and others than are people with only a GED.

As a person who lives with mental illness, as someone who knows what it is like to be in distress and what it is like to be healthy, I am deeply concerned about how easily and blithely people say, “He should be locked up forever!” Really? He should? Why? Because he shot Reagan? Well, what about Freddie Gray? What about the massive number of murders that occur each year in which no one is charged or found guilty, yet we continue to fill up prisons with nonviolent offenders, essentially running graduate schools for criminality. And if that is conflating separate issues, fine. Let’s hit it head-on: consistent evidence shows that treatment works. And do we really think that doctors who have been tasked with caring for one of the most high profile patients in modern history would sign their names to recommendations for release if they were not overwhelming confident that Hinkley is not a danger to himself and others?

The dumbing down of this country and the notion that every opinion is equal is doing serious damage to lives and reasonable conversations. If we are serious about stopping the school to prison pipeline, we need to reexamine our mental health system, including building facilities for the criminally insane. Some, maybe most, should not get out. I can understand that; there are mental illnesses that are so mysterious and powerful, the only thing that can be done is to isolate a person as humanely and safely as possible, while still respecting basic rights. But others can be treated and brought back to a level of health that allows them, with proper restrictions and responsibilities, to return to society.

This is an important issue. It comes down to a basic philosophy. Are we a country that believes once a criminal always a criminal, or do we believe that rehabilitation and transformation are not only possible, but also a focus of our justice system? Because saying that people should stay locked up indefinitely or in inhumane surroundings because “JUSTICE!” just doesn’t work. It ruins lives. And it goes against the fundamental message of Jesus Christ.

On Turning Forty 


Chapter Two: Vague, but insistent eccentricities 

My parents both come from hardscrabble backgrounds. Dad in Detroit, Michigan; Mom in Urbana, Ohio. They had been born into a time that came to define “first one to go to college” for more people than ever in the course of American history. My Dad and Uncle Fred, who committed suicide when I was one year old, both earned PhDs. Mom, an MA and distinguished coursework in two doctorates; my maternal uncle, a JD. He is a well-respected lawyer in his hometown. I’ve known money problems, but never like my grandmothers and grandfathers; my parents made a life through the power of their minds. I am one generation removed from the farm. 

I have found that people who live a life of the mind tend to be eccentric. This is a gross generalization, of course, and I don’t want to draw too many distinctions and lines separating myself from others. But as fervently as some people work out their bodies, I work out my brain. I develop my mind. And a lot of people I know and spend time with regularly do so as well. In my experience we’re…a particular, quirky, somewhat esoteric people.

I learned all of this by watching my parents. 

I don’t know how the word “eccentric” first tripped across my transom, but it did. It is possible that it was one of the words that daily my father would require me to look up, write in a notebook, define, and craft a sentence for; he paid me $.25/word and put it into a college account. Years later, after saving my own money throughout high school from working at the Little Art, I bought my first computer: A PowerMac. It cost me $2000. That’s a lot of words. A lot of popcorn sold. A formidable vocabulary for a sassy little bi-boy coming out of the Springs, already well on his way to becoming eccentric. But I learned the word before I became it. It is also entirely possible that it was my brother who first said it, as we huddled together in his room listening to Fishbone and Big Audio Dynamite in-between U2 and AC/DC. Stephen had banished Zeppelin from the house after Melissa moved out and he took the big bedroom. Their stereo wars used to drive our parents crazy. I, sharing a room with Stephen, colluded until he hit me too hard. Then I would run down the hall safely into the confines of Sis’s room, asking to listen to Jethro Tull or Jesus Christ Superstar. 

But I think that “eccentric” becoming part of the vocabulary, a designate that we could brandish upon our parents like a  papal seal on an excommunication decree, most likely came later. After the move to Yellow Springs. In the last good period Stephen had before schizophrenia gripped him. The salad days. I have this vague, but insistent memory of gathering in the room we now call “Mimi’s room” and establishing, through dulcet tones, that Mom and Dad were just so eccentric. They read books all the time; they had “tea time” every Saturday. They liked to have long, boring conversations about things we didn’t care about and they made us stay at the table. Ugh. They were just so…weird, we thought, with family trips planned around museums, or  Bob Dylan concerts.We agreed that it was pretty cool to work in a movie theater the family owned, and getting to see films before they even came out was neat, but Mom and Dad were totally squaresville. 

I know, right?! I want to reach back in history and slap myself on the head and say, “Shut up you little shit and fucking appreciate the incredible exposure to art, literature, culture, and music your parents are giving you!!!”But at the time I remember why. I have often said that I would live through my brother’s suicide; the miscarriage and eventual divorce that occurred in the first marriage; and pretty much anything else on the long list of bad shit that has happened to and around me, before I would ever go back to middle school. It was, without question, fucking hell for me. I wanted a family like The Huxtables. I wanted to live in some idyllic world where my brother and sister did not have a different father; where I did not feel so horribly insecure about myself; where my emotions were not always so topsy-turvy, my heart so ever-on-my-sleeve. A world in which I did not feel like my body was the enemy.

Two years ago, I did not have any tattoos where people could see them unless I removed my shirt. I think I am slipping into the “heavily tattooed” category, at least for my profession. There are more of us, to be sure, than there were in the past, but we are still outside the norm. The locks are a rather new addition, too. While we are broke now, I once had expendable income that I spent on clothes that make me feel comfortable; I like suits. Waistcoats. Ties. Shoes. Hats. And I readily admit that it is born of insecurity. I have spent most of my life hating my body. Wanting out of my head. Wishing that I weren’t so…Yeah. You guessed it. Eccentric. 

It hit me last night when Miriam sent me a text asking how I was doing and I typed out: “Reading an article in The Atlantic Monthly about the necessity of humanities education in a digital world. And watching The Office. You?” I hit send and then thought, You’re an odd bird, Saari. An odd bird, indeed. Later, Mimi would say that she didn’t even bat an eye. “Of course you were,” she quipped this morning. “That’s the kinda stuff you do. I figured there was some documentary on and you were playing Scrabble.” I thought, Huh.  Just a few feet away is  the spot where Stephen and I collaborated, calling Mom and Dad eccentric. If I had only known. 

They heard us. Well, Mom did anyway. I know because it came up a couple weeks later–or a year; time is abtract–during an argument, when my mother hissed at me: “I know you and your brother think we’re eccentric! And that you’re embarrassed about us. Well you know what? I. Don’t Care.”  Which, of course, is the best answer that someone could possibly give, especially a strong, intelligent, loving mother to her sensitive, almost cowering son. I was on my way to letting fear of my peers and deep insecurities totally control my life. If mother isn’t afraid of them, I started to reason, maybe their opinions don’t matter so much. And it has taken me decades to get to a place where I feel like myself. Oh, it’s a shitstorm being me, sometimes. Bipolar is a wild ride, often exhilarating and sometimes exhaustingly terrifying. And I’d like to lose some weight. But in the main, I’m okay being eccentric if it allows me to be loving, compassionate, intentional, understanding, loyal, good, and true. 

So, that’s me.  At forty. A little quirky, a  little weathered. But standing. Surrounded by love and purpose. My life is totally different than how I pictured it when I was 18. And that’s okay.  Even though I scramble to find money, I don’t scramble to find meaning. Significance. Joy. The stuff of life that Jesus told us would lead to our true treasure. 

Or maybe I’m just being eccentric.