The Outcast, The Pigs and the Nazarene
This morning, we thank you for this breathtaking, fragile world we live in and for the possibility of responding to you through it – in wonder – and intimacy in humility – and delight. Thank you that the world is full of difference, where people experience you differently, worship you differently, serve you differently. Help us not to use their differences as excuses to build walls that separate, but rather to use them to see the world as a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns, where everyone is linked to their neighbours, bound together by your strong love.
Today we remember once again how Jesus lived among us demonstrating your love for all people but especially the ones who have low expectations of themselves, whom nobody bothers with, who never get a job that pays enough, or a home to call their own, or a task that gives them delight or a special person to love. If we know someone like that, let us see them through your eyes; give us the compassion and the conviction to say to them ‘you are loved’.
This morning, as we listen to a story of healing, we confess O God, that we often find ourselves distracted by a legion of destructive voices that make false promises. We believe safety and security can reside in ample bank accounts. We think that success leads to real happiness. We equate power with dominating others. We hold fast to pain and anger as if they were treasure in a chest. We soothe our fear of failure with substances that do harm. We feed our hunger for love and approval with food that does not satisfy.
Break hold of the chains that bind us, O God. Set us free from the tombs in which we dwell.
Eternal God, we believe the good news of your mercy and love, and rejoice that we are forgiven and free. Receive us as your children, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, part of your new community of love, and give us strength to do your will, today and always. Amen.
Reading: Mark 5:1-20 (Good as New)
We heard earlier that mental ill health is often accompanied by shame and stigma and in the story of Jesus, Legion and the pigs, we are confronted by a man who is the embodiment of shame in the Ancient Near East. A pagan, a self-harmer, an unclean, naked outcast who was made to live away from society, amongst the dead, this poor man was hidden from polite society and left to his own devices. How obscene, we might think. What primitive thinking!
And yet, just earlier this month, a High Court Judge had to warn of the blood on our hands if a teenage girl hidden at the edge of our society, also a mentally unwell self-harmer, was not given the care she needed;
“We are, even in these times of austerity, one of the richest countries in the world,” Sir James Munby said. “Our children and young people are our future. [This girl] is part of our future. It is a disgrace to any country with pretensions to civilisation, compassion and, dare one say it, basic human decency, that a judge in 2017 should be faced with the problems thrown up by this case and should have to express himself in such terms.”
We still have a long way to go in our duty to care for our sisters and brothers in our own communities. And the Church can be a great help, yet tragically, sometimes is a hindrance in God’s call to show compassion to all. To help us reflect on this today, we welcome John to come up and share his experience of mental ill health, the Church and the love of Christ…
John, how do you think the story of Legion speaks to us about mental health?
Mark 5 tells us about someone who suffered from mental health. He was an extreme case. The society in which he lived had no answer other than to restrain him, but failed to do so. Whether the symptoms are extreme, or whether the symptoms seem almost not to exist, mental illness is about living in another world from everyone else around you. It is a state of intense isolation. The mind is confused, there may as in Legion’s case, be a sense of being more than one. Behaviour in consequence is likely sometimes to be strange, or even as in the case of Legion bizarre; then as now thought best left to the expert to sort out. But often the cause is not a basic weakness of mind, nor instability, but rather a heightened consciousness of what is wrong with the world or society and the lack of any answer. The mind cannot cope and gives up. Legion was a very strong man, physically and mentally. My understanding is that he had been a soldier, perhaps an officer, in a Roman Legion. He was a Pagan, not a Jew, but that was irrelevant. Mental ill health can strike those of any faith or none. In my imagination I see him as increasingly dismayed by the brutality and senselessness of fighting. He dreamt of a world without war and hatred and strife. Yet he was completely helpless. His comrades could not see it. They thought that killing, wounding, maiming was normal. It was how the Roman Empire was built. Legion was mentally, socially isolated. So he cracked. He ended up living among the tombs, which was where the mentally ill lived in those days.
And how does it compare or contrast with your experience of mental ill health?
I was born a serious and hypersensitive boy, just before the 1939-40 war, and I took everything in. Whereas other children played ‘Hitlers’, my mind concentrated on why we were fighting a war and why in Cardiff we were being bombed. I felt the fear. At the age of 8 I had my first big breakdown after listening to the Nuremburg Trials on the wireless. I collapsed and it took me two years to recovery my mental and physical faculties. They called it war shock, and if such it was, there is an obvious link with Legion. I was very delicate from then on and advised not to go in for the ministry by family and friends. But I did and was right to do so because God called me to a special challenge; to a valleys church which like the rest was living in the past. Someone had to teach them how to cope with the future. If you think it was a joy ride first turning one church upside down and then uniting it with a church of another denomination, then you have no idea. I took most people with me. But there was bitter, senseless and heartless opposition all the way, and that is very exhausting. I got the work done and then cracked. I had no option but to resign and to hand on the work to another. Unlike Legion my behaviour in public was not anti-social. Mostly over the worst period I hid away in a little tomb I made for myself in my bedroom. I eventually, after a few years break recovered enough to assist here and in Glyncoch at the little Anglican church. But after 7 years my weakness returned and the doctors told me that I had to retire from pastoral ministry. I was put on sick benefit permanently for the rest of my life.
How did the Church respond to your experience?
Very badly on the whole. Despite the fact that many great saints of the church went through what is called ‘The dark night of the soul’, Christians still believe that breakdown is failure, summed up by one of my Baptist ministerial colleagues who told me that I had ‘taken my eyes off the Lord’. There was great ignorance back in 1969 about mental illness. People were afraid of people who had gone ‘doo-lally’, a hangover from the time it was thought of as demon possession. I’m not sure that it is much better nowadays. My taking my membership to Tabernacle Welsh Baptist Church, where I sought and found some peace, was expressed by the folk at the United Church as disloyalty. Others had always known I was potty. My family and I were allocated a house in Glyncoch with other rejects from society. We had almost no money, experienced near starvation, and had to borrow. But help was at hand. I was looked after not only by a loving wife, and young children who were also very understanding, but by a sizeable selection of friends, each acting independently. I hesitate to mention their names because I might leave someone out. They were all Christians, but first and foremost human beings who rated my qualities and work very highly. Chief among them was Ray Vincent, who devoted a large chunk of his time to looking after me, and I would put second my mother-in-law, Joyce Styles, a Baptist deacon in Herne Bay, Valerie’s home. She had me there to stay with her several times. Both Ray’s house in London and the home in Herne Bay were to be essential retreats, and there were others. To use the words of Michael Ball, I “worked my passage back” in the United Church, aware of the distrust all around me. But some proved good friends to us in many ways. They know who they are, and I thank them. So in retrospect, the reaction of the church has been mixed. But locally, not so good, I’m afraid.
How do you see Jesus responding to Legion and what does that have to teach us about our care, welcome and love for those who experience times of mental ill health?
We need to reconstruct this story for it to be of much use to us today. Mark, Luke and Matthew each put their own spin on it. Matthew has two sufferers instead of one, perhaps to say that Legion was not an isolated case. Luke has the pigs being drowned because he accepted the belief of the day that pigs could not swim. Today we know they can. They would have swum round to the next bay. All 3 writers believed mental illness was demon possession. But Jesus did not go about things like a regular exorcist. The exorcist would have stood at a distance and chanted a load of pious gobbledegook, then make a quick exit. Jesus doesn’t run away. He allows the man to approach him and kneel at his feet. Jesus shows no fear or sqeamishness. He listens to what the man has to say, and answers him in his own language. He asks the man his name, a common way of beginning a friendship. Then Jesus decides to have a bit of fun. “Let’s pretend these pigs are your cares and anxieties. Let’s drive them away!” And Jesus starts to shout and dance and drive the pigs towards the water. Legion joins in the fun, and shouts and dances and sings. The man was an exhibitionist. He had never had so much fun in all his life! Together the two get rid of their problems, and together they see God’s New World of Love and Peace before them. So the first thing you do with regard to someone who is mentally ill is to put your fears aside. You are in the company of another human being, made, like you, in the image of God. Exchange names and other simple information such as ‘where you from?’ Don’t try to understand and don’t say that you understand, because you don’t. Don’t give advice. The troubled soul needs less challenges, not more. However shocking the things you may be told, do not condemn. If you can find something to laugh about together – that’s good therapy. I leave with you something passed on by a psychiatrist who was taking a service in Taffs Well. “In all my experience, however severe the case, I have never known anyone not to make some progress from receiving a bit of love.”
We thank John for his courage, honesty and generosity in sharing his experience and insights with us.