Courage, Compassion and Constance
Throughout this morning’s service, we will be listening to the words of women. For centuries, of course, the voices of women have been hushed, ignored or silenced by many in the Church – casting them to the margins, patronising them with menial tasks. The same, of course, could be said for many other people in our society – the LGBTQ community; those with special educational needs, those experiencing mental ill health…Well this morning we try to walk the way of Jesus – the one who condemned exclusion, celebrated diversity, listened to the forgotten and embraced the outcast – by hearing from three women who have experiences to share, stories to tell and God’s good news to bring. First, Viviane will read for us Psalm 51 which has been rewritten by The Reverend Carla Grolsch-Miller
Psalm 51 Redux from Psalms Redux: Poems and Prayers, 2014.
Psalm 51, thought to have originally been written by King David, rewritten there by Carla. We know that King David was one of the many Biblical greats thought to have struggled with periods of mental ill health – widely understood at the time as being a punishment handed out by an angry deity. Today, thank God, we know that mental ill health is not a curse or punishment from God but is part of being human, with one in three of us experiencing such a time in our lives. Today, thank God, we do not silence the female, the gay, the mentally unwell but know instead that we can hear the whisper of God’s love in the lives of all people. Today, thank God, we are not subjected to an hour’s preaching of hellfire and damnation by one man in power but are blessed to hear of the beauty and brokenness of our living by a harmony of different voices. With that in mind, I invite Margaret, no stranger to beautiful harmonies, to come up and share some of her story…
I had always thought that Mental Illness was something that happened to other people, until 35 years ago when I was diagnosed with Clinical Depression. I suppose it had gradually crept up on me following a series of events – a family death, personal illness and other triggers – but when it hit me, I was completely unprepared for it.
I became fearful of anything and everything – going outside, staying in, being on my own, being with people – and I certainly couldn’t carry on with my work as a Staff Nurse. It felt as if there was a high wall in front of me, which I could not get over, and each day I would wake with a feeling of dread hanging over me. I felt a complete failure – as a mother, wife, daughter, and as a human being – a feeling of being completely worthless and useless. It was only through the love and patience of Chris and my parents that I was able to carry on.
I saw a psychiatrist, who prescribed a cocktail of drugs, including sedatives and anti-depressants, and gradually, they began to have some effect and I began to feel slightly better. Little by little I began leave the house taking short walks, at first, then gradually getting longer, but still not wanting to socialize much.
I stopped going to Church! I felt that, as a Christian, I shouldn’t be suffering from depression, as Christians were supposed to be happy, joyful people, weren’t they?
But I read – I read the Psalms, poetry, books and I read through my hymn book – and it was in reading these, that I began to see glimmers of hope – that other people – the Psalm writers, poets, writers and hymn writers had gone through these feelings before, and had managed to live with these feelings and come through them. I also listened to music, and music gave me comfort.
I didn’t recover for about 4 years, but with the help and support of Chris and my parents, I felt better.
During that time, I also began to feel a new sense of God’s Love for me, which I hadn’t been aware of before. His Love was something which now I experienced and knew existed, and the sense of which I pray I shall never lose again, although I may not always feel or be aware of it. I am grateful for this awareness, as I know that not everyone feels this, and many people feel the absence of God during their depression.
By this time, I had not been able to work for 4 years, but I started again – firstly as a shop assistant, then as a care assistant at the Cheshire Homes. After about 2-3 years, I was offered the post of Staff Nurse again, doing 2 nights a week. My career was back on its feet, and I spent a happy 10 years there, doing this work, until I had to go into hospital to undergo a complicated major operation.
I came through it and all was well, until about 5 weeks after – I hit the wall again. My doctor told me I had been running on an empty tank, and the symptoms returned.
This time, there were no anti-depressants. Due to a heart condition, I reacted very badly to them, so again with the help of Chris, my family, two close friends and some counselling from the Church in Wales Counselling Service, I gradually got back on my feet again, although I never went back to work.
Depression changed my life – it was, and is a horrible experience to go through, but I was fortunate, (as others may not be), to have a wonderful supportive family – Chris, my two boys my parents and close friends.
I didn’t talk much to people about it, especially those in a Church environment, where Christians are not supposed to feel depressed, and feel guilty when they do, or so I thought.
Today, I feel differently! People are suffering from Mental Illness in our Churches and Congregations, throughout the country, and we need to be more aware of this.
I believe that part of my illness was due to a family predisposition to Depression – my father having suffered throughout his life from anxiety and chronic depression. I believe that his sister, who had been a medical missionary in Kenya, also suffered from it, and her son – my cousin – who is a professor of Geology in Canada, is currently undergoing ECT treatment for severe Catatonic Depression.
Everyone has their own way of dealing with Depression, and whatever works for them is good. Some like to talk about it – others find it difficult, as I did and still do.
My depression has never completely gone, as it comes and goes, and I cope with it from day to day, but I am forever grateful for the renewed Knowledge of God’s Love which it gave me. I know now that that Love exists, and whether we feel it or not, is always with us.
There is a Gaelic Prayer which I find a great help:
“As the rain hides the stars, as the Autumn Mist hides the hills, as the clouds veil the blue of the sky, so the dark happenings of my lot hide the shining of your face from me. Yet, if I may hold your hand in the darkness, it is enough. Since I know that, though I may stumble in my going, you do not fall.”
After thanking Margaret for her honesty, generosity and courage in sharing what she did, we had a time of prayer and sang a hymn, continuing our worship…
We’ve heard from Reverend Carla Grolsch-Miller and her need for God’s embrace in her rewriting of Psalm 51 and we’ve heard from Margaret as she bravely shared her experience of mental ill health as well as her renewed understanding of God’s love. Now we hear from another friend of Jesus who longed for God’s embrace; one who also tasted the bitterness of mental illness and the sweetness of God’s love…
It seems like a lifetime ago now when I’d been out playing and I came home as it was getting dark. I walked in and something seemed odd – Mum was not cooking she was sitting down crying I asked her what was wrong … but then I saw two strange men. My dad didn’t look at me he just told me to go with those men – I belonged to them now.
I couldn’t believe it, I remember running to my mum crying but they pulled me away and dragged me into the night. Many years later I learnt that dad had got into a bit of trouble and in order to settle his debts he sold me.
At first I thought it would be ok, I’d heard stories of the slave markets but thought I’ll be fine, I’ll be bought by some rich man to act as a serving girl to his wife. It would be ok, it would be ok.
It wasn’t ok.
I was bought by some rich man, not for his wife but for his pleasure – you don’t need to know any more than that. When he got bored with me he sold me on to his friend and so it continued until I got too old and I was just thrown into the street.
I didn’t know what to do – I had no one to support me, to look after me; people either crossed the road to avoid me or just laughed and got their children to tease me.
I found one way to make money though, I danced for the men – at least I earned enough for a little food but more importantly for wine – the drink helped me forget. But it didn’t stop me from crying at night. Didn’t stop me from cutting myself. Or the rest. And over time it got worse. People would laugh and stare and point at me, calling me hysterical, mad, demon-possessed!
Then I heard about the one who could heal!
It was a long walk from Magdala to Galilee – it took days and days and I was so afraid that by the time I got there he’d have already moved on, but for once I was in luck. And my day was about to get even better. There was something about the way he looked at me: it was so tender; so gentle; so full of love. No one had looked at me like that for years. Like I mattered. Like I wasn’t just a body to play with or a mad woman to ignore. Then he spoke with me and asked to hear my story. I blushed. How could I tell this preacherman about the men and the drink and the illness? And yet there I was, pouring my heart out. I don’t know…it was like he knew what it was to be an outsider, like he could share my pain and offer me hope and that’s just what he did! I asked if I could journey on with him, after all I had nothing to go home to, I would always be ‘the mad woman of Magdala‘ there. And he said yes, I couldn’t believe it – he wasn’t embarrassed to be seen with me!
And all that time I spent with him, seeing how he spoke to people, spent time with those that others crossed the road to avoid. There was just something about him that ordinary people felt drawn to. It wasn’t just me who walked for miles to catch a glimpse of him, perhaps even to touch him or at least listen to what he had to say. Crowds followed him everywhere. There were when he fed us with a few loaves and some fish. They were there on the Sunday he entered the city. There were there on the Friday too. I can barely think about that day, let alone talk about it. But if Friday was the worst day of my life, then that Sunday had to be the best.
There were a few of us women there in the morning. We wanted to anoint Jesus’ body; you see we didn’t have time before they buried him, because of the Sabbath and we wanted, with our hearts and minds, to say a proper good bye. After all we’d looked after him when he was alive so it was only right we looked after now, in death.
When we got there, the stone had been rolled away and the body stolen – well, that’s what we thought. When the other women left, I just sat there, crying, wondering why those who had hounded him in life couldn’t leave him at peace in death.
Then I heard the most wonderful sound in the world, I will never forget it for as long as I live. ‘Mary’, that’s all he said but I knew it was Jesus. Through my tears I could not recognise him but the way he said my name was so tender, it reminded me of our first meeting. And with that one word, everything changed forever…
It’s still hard to believe that Jesus had come to me, a woman, an ‘untrustworthy woman’, surely there were others he could have spoken to first; those far more worthy than me. I was terrified that no one would believe me and at first, they didn’t. ‘Idle chatter’ the men called it. ‘Mad talk’. That takes me back…!
But now, it doesn’t matter for there have been more sightings, many more encounters since. Jesus is alive. The one who gave hope to his people is alive. The man who listened to the outcast and broke bread with the despised, is alive. The man who met a girl from Madgala whom others called dirty, broken, mad and who named her friend, loved, a daughter of God, is alive and he’s out there changing lives, transforming communities, redeeming the entire world. That’s my story. That’s the good news I’ve got to share. Let’s just hope they can hear it from a woman!
Mary Magdalene wasn’t the only one, of course, to have her life transformed by the wanderer from Nazareth. Nor was she the only woman to have her experience of Christ dismissed as idle chatter. When Constance Todd, as she was known then, first shared her belief that she was called to preach God’s word, she was mocked and scorned. How could anyone take what a woman had to say seriously? How could she make her weak, feminine voice heard or handle the hard dynamics of the elders’ meeting – these were two of the issues that were raised before she was turned away by the Presbyterian Church of England.
But Constance persisted, fuelled by a sense of God’s justice, keen for her voice to be heard, and 100 years ago today, Constance, alongside her fiancée Claud who she married the following day, was ordained by the Congregational Union of England and Wales, becoming the first woman to be ordained into a Trinitarian Church in the United Kingdom. Constance stood on the shoulders of the countless women who passed on the light, sang the song and told the tale of Jesus down through the centuries, following in the footsteps of Mary, the apostle to the apostles, the first person who witnessed the risen Christ.
Today, in the Church, we still have much to learn, much to confess, much to put right. And to do so, perhaps, like Constance, we can seek to be a people who follow in the footsteps of Mary from Magdala. For to be a church inspired by Mary means to listen to all who have been ignored, ill-treated or misunderstood because of their mental ill health; it means to be a home to those whose bodies have too often been excluded – the female, the gay, the transgender, the differently abled; it means to be a people who are motivated by a message of resurrection.
When the risen Christ called Mary by name, he was calling the names of all those who have ever felt shunned, humiliated, abandoned; he was declaring that no voice is unheard by God, no name forgotten, no life unloved. So today, just like Mary and Constance in their day, just like Carla and Margaret in ours, it’s up to us – to you, and you, and me – to share the good news of God’s wonderful, ridiculous, extravagant love for all people, in our daily living.