By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
February 13, 2022
Video of entire service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/312047087567832
Well here it is again: this wild story about the Gerasene demoniac. Remember how last week, I promised you I’d explain the especially bizarre part about the demons being a Legion and Jesus casting them out into the pigs? Are you dying of curiosity about that part? Well, too bad. That’s next week. I 100% pinky swear promise we will talk about the Legion of demons and the pigs as an introduction to hearing from Dr. Betty Kola next week.
Okay, so pigs are not our focus today. Today, our focus is the reaction of the community to the healed Gerasene man. So the Gerasene man is suffering, as we discussed last week he may be suffering from something like a mental illness…our scripture writers don’t have that medical framework for what’s happening. But we can make that analogy. We can see that this man was being treated how people with mental health struggles are sometimes treated: ostracized, put away from other people.
But then, Jesus heals the man, right? There’s this miraculous healing that takes place (and as we described last week, that is not how most mental illness is healed…healing is a long process of encountering the compassion of Jesus in the people who help us: friends, therapists, doctors, and medications – all those good gifts from God). But in the scripture, the healing is instantaneous.
I want you to hear again the initial reaction of the community:
“… Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid…17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.”
Doesn’t this seem like a strange reaction? The sermon discussion groups this week talked about this, and they have given me permission to share some of their insights. We wondered together: why weren’t the people happy that Jesus was able to cure this man? Why were they afraid? Why did they beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood?
The group worked through some theories. Maybe the people were unsettled because Jesus took this man who was really struggling emotionally, who maybe was experiencing something like we would call mental illness, and Jesus plopped that guy right there in the midst of all the people. Maybe the Gerasene man’s presence made people uncomfortable because of the way they had locked him away and mistreated him before. Maybe his presence made them uncomfortable because now that he was in his right mind, he was able to tell everybody how he had been treated and how that made him feel. Maybe his presence made them uncomfortable because they were worried he might get upset again, and they didn’t know what to do.
This all gets us to the truth of how uncomfortable it can be for us as human beings to be in the presence of people who are experiencing emotional distress or mental illness. One person in the group who works with counselors and therapists described his colleagues as being like first responders. While everyone else is running away from the disaster, first responders run toward it.
So if the community around the Gerasene man wanted to run away (or rather make Jesus and the man go away), it begs this question. How do we become people who are willing, maybe not to run toward, maybe that is a specialized kind of profession, but what would it take for us to become people who are willing to stay present and maybe walk toward and alongside the people in our lives who are struggling emotionally?
The groups that met told me it would be helpful to give people some simple tools they might use to be present and walk toward people who are experiencing emotional distress or mental health struggles. So here are a few things I have learned as a pastor, from my own time in therapy, and from folks in the group.
So I want you to imagine you encounter someone who is struggling emotionally, whether they have an officially diagnosed mental illness or not…just someone who is going through something difficult. I think you can use these skills whenever someone is sharing something hard with you.
I’ll start with some advice I include in all of our Grow Group covenants or rules which is (ironically) give no advice.
I know what you are thinking: what?! If someone is telling me about their problem, don’t they want advice? Isn’t that why they are telling me? I would bet that 99% of the time, the answer is no.
I know it’s hard NOT to give someone advice when they are sharing their struggles. It’s hard because sometimes our own anxiety tells us that if the person is hurting, we have to fix it. Fix it right now. This can come from a place of genuine love. We do not want to see the person we love hurting.
The problem with advice is this. When someone is dealing with a complex problem – and let’s be honest, simply being human is a complex problem – there is NOT an easy fix. If someone is suffering, and there was an easy fix, they probably would have done it already. In fact, they probably have given all sorts of things a try already.
Offering advice minimizes the person’s suffering and subtly gives them the message that if they were smarter or better or stronger, they just would have just fixed this already. So start by assuming the person sharing with you does not WANT or NEED advice. Assume they just want to be seen and heard. Only give advice if they ask for it.
Okay, so if you are not going to give advice, what do you say?
Now, don’t tell anyone this. I am going to share one of my secrets of providing great pastoral care. It is very profound and, if I might say so myself, linguistically perfect. When someone tells me something hard that is going on with them, here’s how I respond. “That sucks.” Impressive, right? Depending upon the situation, I might expand it to, “That sucks so much.”
Now, I know that language is authentic to me. It might not be super comfortable for you. You could also try, “I’m so sorry” or “I’m so sorry this is happening.” And then just listen. Give the person a hug if that’s possible and appropriate for your relationship. Give them a Kleenex if they are crying. Then maybe say, “Do you want to talk to me about it?”
As you continue to listen to the person talk, I will give you one more piece of “do not” advice. Do not ever use the words “at least.” When someone is coming to you with a pain or a problem, banish these words from your vocabulary. Even when you mean to be helpful, I promise you telling someone “at least” is not a good idea. First of all, “at least” really sends you down the road of minimizing the pain someone is feeling.
Secondly, I want you to know that your instinct to say “at least” is understandable. Your “at least” is the way you are trying to make sense and meaning out of the situation. It’s perfectly fine when something happens to you, like your parent dies, to say to yourself, “Well, at least they didn’t suffer long.” Or “At least the whole family was there at the end.”
But just don’t try to make someone else feel better with what you would choose as the “at least” in their situation. Here’s a way remember this. If the sentence you are about to say is “Well, at least YOU…” Stop. If it’s “At least, I” about your own situation, then it’s okay. Does that make sense?
Okay, so now you have a little advice on things to say and things NOT to say. Please know that if you have said the “NOT to say” things before, you are not alone. One of the ways I know this stuff, is I used to say and do these things! Sometimes even now I slip up and want to give people advice rather than listen. We can acknowledge that has happened in the past. It’s happened in my past. It’s happened in your past. As we say in the church: in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. I want you to say that back to me because I need to hear it, too.
Now we are freed to try to do better in the future.
Finally, I want to acknowledge that sometimes we don’t walk toward people who are suffering because we are afraid we will be overwhelmed. So the last thing I want to tell you today is that you are allowed and encouraged to ask other people for help if you are feeling upset or unsure what to do in a situation. You have your own circle of support (friends, family members, pastors, a therapist, etc.) who can help you carry the heaviness of being present with people who are struggling.
I also mention that there are professional places (like crisis hotlines) for you to go to for help when you feel like you can’t handle the situation in front of you. When I post my sermon, I will list some numbers you can share with a loved one or call yourself if you are not sure how to help. Those resources exist so that we can be supported as we walk toward and walk alongside people who are struggling.
[If the person is not in imminent danger of harming themselves of someone else, start by calling United Way 211. Dial 211 just like you’d dial 911.
You an also text your Zip Code to 211.
Or go online to: https://www.unitedwaymidlands.org/2-1-1/
Other local resources:
Safe Harbor – Takes calls & walk-ins for people struggling with a mental health crisis. Call the Warm Line. A Safe Harbor Peer Support Specialist will answer any time of day or night. Dial 402.715.4226.
If someone is in imminent danger of harming themselves, you can take them to
Lasting Hope (https://www.chihealth.com/lasting_hope_recovery_center)
PES – Psychiatric Emergency Services unit now at the University of Nebraska Medical Center that is accessed through the UNMC Emergency Room.
Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to 741741.]
You don’t have to do it alone. There is help.
There was even help for me putting this sermon together. I could not have put this sermon together by myself. I am grateful to the groups who gathered this week to help me, and it’s got me to thinking. Even though I am up here talking, I don’t make this community what it is. That is the definition of community. It’s not about one person…it’s always about a group of people.
At its best, it is a community of people who have decided to walk toward each other in all their humanity with all their fractures. That’s a new term I learned in the group that I am trying out. We all have fractures, things that happened and hurt, and we are all recovering. As a community of faith, we trust that God gives us sufficient strength and grace to continue recovering from all our fractures together.
Thanks be to God.