Paradoxes and Senators
Biblia Luna # 28
Welcome to Issue #28 of Biblia Luna, the weekly newsletter about the intersection of mental illness and faith.
I’m Proud of My Senator
Last week, Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. His office announced that this was to deal with a severe episode of depression. I’m very proud of Sen. Fetterman — for getting the help he needs, and for being so transparent and public about his mental health. I’ve also been impressed and delighted by the public support he’s received, from both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed their concern, and their hope that he receives the help he needs.
I’m very glad that the Senator is openly, and without shame, talking about this — this is how we slowly break the stigma. And I’m very glad that the media and other politicians are showing such support, because that’s a sign that the stigma is breaking. I’m not sure that this would have all played out the same way a decade or two ago.
We still have a long way to go with the stigma against mental illness (just ask some of these same politicians the next time there’s a mass shooting, and they blame mental illness), but we are heading in the right direction. I’m not happy that my senator shares this disease, but I’m happy that he’s talking about it. I look forward to hearing from him when he is discharged.
Crazy Lectionary — Ash Wednesday
Last week, I said that I’d try to write a special edition of Biblia Luna for Ash Wednesday. That didn’t happen. I will try to get a special edition out in the next few days for the First Sunday in Lent.
The lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday, February 22, are Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.
Ash Wednesday is filled with dichotomies, or paradoxes, or things that just don’t make sense, depending on how you look at it. In the second reading, Paul highlights a number of paradoxes:
We were treated with honor and dishonor and with verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as both fake and real, as unknown and well known, as dying – and look, we are alive! We were seen as punished but not killed, as going through pain but always happy, as poor but making many rich, and as having nothing but owning everything. (2 Corinthians 6:8-10, Common English Bible)
Paul’s experience as an ambassador for Christ has led him to be an enigma to the people of Corinth – he doesn’t fit into the categories right, he seems to be one thing, but is actually another.
The first reading from Joel is also a paradox – the day of the Lord is coming, and it is “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Joel 2:2, New Revised Standard Version). Israel is about to get clobbered at God’s hand, and nothing can stop it. However, Joel proclaims:
Yet even now, return to me with all your heart…Return to the Lord, your God…[for he may] turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him.” (Joel 2:12-14, NRSV)
Even God is seen here as unknowable and rather confusing – is God coming to destroy, or not? Is this threat of destruction just a tool to bring the people to repent? The priests are told to gather together and weep, begging God to change God’s mind. But if the priests know that doing so will indeed avoid the disaster, then how can they take it seriously? It’s a paradox of reality vs. play-acting.
And the gospel reading forms a paradox when placed within the context of the Ash Wednesday service. We are told to “beware of practicing our piety before others” (Matthew 6:1, NRSV), to do our good works and our fasts in secret, but then we go out of the building with an ashen cross on our foreheads. We walk around wearing our piety on our faces.
All these paradoxes can be viewed as fruitful spiritual dichotomies, ways to open our minds up beyond the ways we typically understand the world. But to me, they also point to a paradox that sits at the core of who I am, someone who identifies myself both as a baptized child of God, and as someone with major depressive disorder. I live with these two voices constantly speaking in my head. The Dark Voice, the avatar of my depression, tells me constantly that I am worthless, that I am sinful, that I have caused way more trouble than I am worth. (Or perhaps, in more ritualistic words, that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.) The other voice, which I identify as the voice of God, tells me that I am worthy, that I am loved, that my true identity is not in anything that I hear from anyone (including myself), but from the baptism I was washed into so many years ago. Both of these voices come from deep inside me, and it can be very difficult sometimes to tell them apart, unless I’m really paying attention.
So perhaps Ash Wednesday is the day that speaks most directly and honestly to my own lived experience. Ash Wednesday is the day that I hear spoken out loud the words that are in my head every day. On Ash Wednesday, I approach the altar twice: once to hear that I am dust, and once to hear that this bread is given for me. How can Christ’s body be broken for the sake of dust? It makes no sense! How can I live hearing from within that I am both loved and unlovable? It makes no sense. And yet it is my experience. And perhaps it’s precisely the place Christ comes to us.
I will be having an Author Visit at the Bangor Public Library on Saturday, March 4 at 11:00 am. If you’re local to Bangor, stop by! You can download a flyer here.
“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.” — Dan Millman