Maybe It’s Time to Fill in the Ditch…
By Rev. Dr. Steve Van Ostran
34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. – Luke 8: 34-35 (NIV)
This passage from the story of the Gerasene or Gadarene demoniac took on special meaning to me many years ago when I was asked to do the funeral of one my members whom I had never met. He was the son of one of my leading couples in the church, yet I never met him, barely even knew he existed because they rarely talked about him. I had met their other son, had dinner with him, heard about his work and knew to ask about him on a regular basis. But this other son’s existence came as a surprise to me.
I came to learn of Jack (not his real name) a short time before his death. In his youth, Jack had showed great promise and was very popular in high school and college. He was a good athlete, winning a scholarship in his preferred sport. But one day, the parents came home to discover a fire in their home where Jack lived in the basement. Jack had thought there were snakes in the basement and he was trying to drive them out. They soon discovered that Jack had a mental illness that manifested itself in some troubling ways.
Fortunately, this family was fairly well to do and prominent in the small town where they lived. They were able to get him the help he needed in a near-by city and to provide for his care. But the stigma of their son having a mental illness kept them from talking about him much. Those people who were close to the family obviously knew the situation, but also felt the pain and embarrassment of the social stigma and kept quiet as well. But as Jack grew older and the treatments had ins and out, I noticed the husband having to take trips up to the major metropolitan area to handle some sort of “business” fairly regularly. Then Jack, in addition to his mental illness, developed some heart problems, and the couples concern for his well being led them to share with me and to ask me to visit and pray with them in the hospital. It was not too long after that that Jack died unexpectedly from his coronary disease.
As I visited with his mother to prepare for the service, I listened as she shared with pride the stories of the young Jack and the horrors of discovering and dealing with his mental illness. She never really said a lot about the shame or the ostracization she felt from having a child suffering with mental illness. Oh, she knew that her closest friends knew and still loved and cared for her, but those types of things just weren’t talked about in the polite society in which we live.
Somehow the stories she shared about young Jack and the unrealized dreams connected up to the story of the Gadarene for me. So, for the funeral service, I used the passage above to paint a picture of Jack, in sound mind and body, sitting at the fire with Jesus. I painted a picture of Jack living up to the early promises his life showed. And the note I received afterwards from his mother is one of those notes that reminds me of the power of preaching and the efficacy of exegeting God’s word for people.
One of the reasons I knew how the mother felt was due to my own experience of having lost my brother to mental illness. In his case, he took his own life because of depression and a sense of hopelessness. It was different than what Jack experienced, but the stigma was the same. And even though I was the pastor of a church, a place where we should be able to experience healing and hope, people didn’t really want to talk about it. It was too uncomfortable.
Maybe that’s why in this time of crisis where we see mass shootings every other week, where we have had police officers killed trying to intervene in a time of mental and emotional break… the debate in society and even in the church is about gun control and not about addressing the crisis of depression and mental illness that is in the background of most if not all these situations. Please don’t get me wrong here. I am an advocate of some form of reform legislation that demands the demonstration of competence and responsibility in order to exercise our right to bear arms. But the reality is that no matter what legislation we put into place, this is not the real issue. The real issue is the mental and emotional brokenness that so many in our country… in our communities… in our churches are experiencing. And yet we remain uncomfortable and silent about this in polite society, and even in our churches.
When I was pastoring a country church, one Sunday morning following service I was visiting with one of our wizened leaders in front of the church, watching as one of the church families worked a field nearby. As we watched, this leader commented, “I know that Bible says to let the farmer pull the ox out of the ditch on the Sabbath. But when it happens week after week, I wonder why they just don’t fill in the ditch!”
Maybe it’s time for us to fill in the ditch mental and emotional illness.
Prayer: Oh Jesus, as you ministered and cared for the Gadarene, help us to love and care for those who have been enslaved by depression, mental illness, anger and hurt. Help us as your Body, to boldy cast aside the stigma and work toward finding the solutions that will usher in your Kingdom in this area of our lives. In your name we ask it…Amen.
Rev. Dr. Steve Van Ostran