Monday, March 19, 2018

Manna Collecting at Our Feet: A Review of Christ on the Psych Ward

As a pastor and chaplain, I have experienced the presence of Christ on behavioral health units, or psych wards. I led a weekly Bible study on a local behavioral health unit as a volunteer chaplain, and served on a behavioral health unit as the student chaplain before that. Nearly every experience I had on the behavioral health unit brought me face to face with God. One week, we read the Beatitudes together in Bible study, and we spoke of how blessing does not mean being lucky, because we did not feel very lucky that day on the locked-down unit. It does not mean being prosperous. It means God is walking alongside of us, choosing us, whether or not we realize it. So many weeks, a patient would lead us in prayer for another patient, for me, for our world, in a way that we would know the Holy Spirit was with us. It was hard, too; especially on days when everyone sat and stared at me, or when someone tried to read scripture out loud but couldn’t because the hospital didn’t have Bibles at a more accessible reading level, or when I met someone who was so angry I remembered why the nurses’ station gave me a panic button. But even then, God was there, offering love again and again. When I would share (in very general terms to keep confidentiality) about my experiences on the behavioral health unit, my parishioners would begin to open up about their own stories of mental health struggles. In his new book, David Finnegan-Hosey asserts, "telling our stories is an act of resistance to the alienation and isolation of mental illness." And we have found, in telling those stories, in resisting alienation and isolation, we draw closer to one another and to God.

 David Finnegan-Hosey has written a book to help us tell those stories and to share his own. Christ on the Psych Ward is part memoir about his experience in and out of psych wards and part theological text, using the Biblical story to help frame not only his story but all of our stories. As he tells his story, he helps us discover what my congregation was beginning to discover as we broke the silence around mental illness. He writes, "Rather than a conversation about people with mental illness, and how the church can help them, I want the church to listen to and hear the stories of people with mental illness, and to discover the surprising gifts we have to offer."

One of the most surprising gifts that Christ on the Psych Ward offers was not surprising to me at all, because I have known David for a long time.* I found it incredibly refreshing to experience his readings of scripture, especially his interpretation of Genesis 3, the story we often refer to as "The Fall." He asks questions of the text, doesn't fall into easy readings, and, from the depths of the psych ward, shows us why these stories and how we read them matter. Who told you you were naked? God asks in Genesis 3:11a. And David imagines God's voice shaking, saying, "Who told you...that you were lacking in anything? Who told you that you were anything but beautiful and good?" These are questions of life and death when read from psych wards, but they are also questions of life and death that our faith communities should be wrestling with instead of perpetuating tired agendas of shame. I want to use this book not only to interrupt the stigma of behavioral health struggles in church, but also to teach confirmands about sin and shame and challenge Sunday school classes to locate the presence of God in their own lives every day.

I found refreshing challenge in David's words, and I also found grace. This book gives us, clergy and Christians and simply people who are seeking, the grace that is God’s vulnerability in our own vulnerability. When I first read this book, it was on the eve of the first anniversary of my beloved mother-in-law’s unexpected death and while recovering from surgery before my last (in this chapter at least) attempt to live out my call to have a baby. And so I found myself drawn in because of my own need, not only as a pastor, but as a child of God. David speaks of God’s grace being sufficient for us, about learning to take life day by day, moment by moment. He said in the psych ward, he kept a “victory column,” with things like getting out of bed, taking a shower, eating a meal, and other small wins, to help him notice the sufficiency of grace we have to help us get by. He said, using the story from Exodus 16, “Perhaps we are all struggling, longing for an abundance that seems always out of reach, missing the manna collecting at our feet." David’s book was some of that manna collecting at my feet as I struggled on a difficult day. It was a surprising gift, much like many of the patients I have worked with behavioral health unit and the sharing of stories in my own congregation. May it be so for you as well.

Manna collecting at my feet. Or, in this case, laying on my feet and snoring.

*David and I met on a mission trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006. We got to work together often in United Methodist Church circles, but he has since joined the United Church of Christ because The UMC's commitment to justice has rotted as we continue to discriminate against queer folks and as we have been unwilling to listen to and act upon our missionaries' call to peace in Israel/Palestine (among other things). The whole time I read this book, I lamented the loss of his voice in our denomination (the guy is so freaking Wesleyan, really) and wonder at the sheer number of passionate theologians The UMC has lost or silenced because we just can't love our neighbors. But that is a whole other blog post.

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