Welcome to Issue #26 of Biblia Luna, the weekly newsletter about the intersection of mental illness and faith. We’ve got a few new subscribers this week! Welcome!
Crazy Lectionary: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
February 12 is the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany. The readings assigned for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; and Matthew 5:21-37. I see a common theme running through these passages, at least through Deuteronomy and Matthew. The theme I see is, “Here are my rules. Do them, and things will be good.”
In Deuteronomy, we hear:
If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish. (Deuteronomy 30:16-17a, New Revised Standard Version)
Then Jesus says in Matthew:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:29, NRSV)
Sheesh. And this is after he redefines the commandments to make it clear that nobody, nobody can succeed in following them. I have a friend who refers to Matthew’s version of Jesus as “Angry Jesus.” And I can see where he gets that from. The Jesus we see it Matthew is calling for a very high level of commitment, and offers some pretty threatening alternatives for that commitment — and of course, we see something similar in Deuteronomy. It’s not hard to see how some branches of Christianity have made it into a religion focused on morality and ethics. They’re just following one interpretation of passages like these.
But it’s good to remember that this is also the Jesus whose disciples asked him, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus responded, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God.” Jesus is utilizing what is called in Lutheran theology the Second Use of the Law. According to Luther, the First Use of the Law as found in scripture is to guide us to create a civil society. But the Second Use is what we see here: a mirror to show people that we are sinful and can never attain the perfection to which they are called. While this use of the Law indeed condemns us, its true intention is that through that condemnation, we are driven to Christ, where there is grace unending. Yes, you have failed and fallen short, but take heart – I have saved you, and you are forgiven and loved! The Law is there to drive us to the Gospel.
Here’s the connection with mental illness: It is very easy for people with anxiety disorders or depression to hear the Law. But it can also be very easy to fail to hear, or to fail to accept, the Gospel. It is very easy for people to hear these calls to holiness as something they ought to be doing, something they are failing to do, something they will always fail to do, because they are at heart nothing but failures.
This might have been what Martin Luther himself lived with during his days as a monk, when he is said to have gone to his confessor, Staupitz, quite frequently and for such “mortal sins” as passing wind. The story goes that eventually Staupitz told Luther not to come back until he’d committed some real sin, and that at one point he asked Luther, “Martin, don’t you think that God loves you?” This eventually led Luther to the book of Romans, and eventually to a deep understanding of grace, which then led to the last five hundred years of church history.
But if Luther did have what we would now call an anxiety disorder, it seems that he overcame it, or learned to live with it. Anxiety and depression might make some sense of some of the stories of Luther, the times he’s said to have thrown an inkwell at the devil, and perhaps even some of his famous gastrointestinal difficulties. But whatever his problems may or may not have been, the truth is there are people today who need a Staupitz in their lives, someone who can tell them again and again that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, God loves them.
I had a great experience last weekend at Learning Ministries Day, an annual event sponsored by the Northeastern PA Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Some very thoughtful and people attended my workshop, and shared stories and questions that I think deepened our faith and our understanding. (And welcome to a few new subscribers to this newsletter!)
Also, I’m getting excited because contest awards season is coming up. Last summer and fall, I entered my book Darkwater: A Pastor’s Memoir of Depression and Faith in a number of contests for new and indie books. They all accept entries all year long, and then award the finalists and winners sometime in the late winter/early spring. So over the next month or two, I should find out if I’m a finalist in any of them. I’ll let you know!
Finally, if you’re interested in my “back catalog” of podcast interviews, you can always check out the list here.
I just finished reading The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order by Joan Wickersham. It’s a very compelling story, presented in a creative style. Wickersham shares the story of how she and her family dealt with her father’s suicide. I recommend it, but certainly remember that it may be triggering if you have survived the suicide of someone you love.
"There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in." ― Leonard Cohen
Children sing Jesus loves me. Maybe this would be a theme song for adults, or a mantra to really sink in!