3 GUC August 2022
Sometimes terrible things happen. Russia invades Ukraine. Employment is lost. A medical diagnosis. The Bible is realistic and acknowledges this sad reality. Ecclesiastes “The days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’.” (12:1).
If somethings are beyond our control, what can we do? The Bible is clear that we can try to have a healthy attitude. Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not worry about your life, or what you will eat or drink… is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?… and can anyone by worrying add more than a single hour to your span of life?” and a little later, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matt 6: 25-28, 34).
Disappointments, losses and tragedies will challenge our faith. In this message I would like to look at two healthy responses. This is the third in series of sermons on mental health.
Jesus accepted that ‘bad things happen to good people’. Some events are random. Sometimes people make bad choices, such as drinking too much and driving, with consequences for the innocent. There are no guarantees of a ‘charmed life’ for his followers. If anything Jesus predicted persecution and costly discipleship. The only potential reward was promised in the after-life (which may reassure some believers but not all).
But there is a principle of living: in his teachings: Accept what comes and allow your values to guide you.
Richard Holloway has had a successful career in the church: famous preacher, writer and bishop of Edinburgh. In his book Waiting for the Last Bus, he recalled a silly incident in his youth. In his 20’s he was losing his hair, so he bought was proved to be sugar pills to ward off baldness. The ad was in a Church magazine. Had the pills worked, “I would have missed learning one of the best lessons life teaches: that it is better to accept reality rather than to deny it.”
Acceptance is easier said than done. It is not easy when you prematurely lose your hair (ask Prince William), or are fired from a job, or have a car accident leading to a permanent disability. Or when we face a threatening medical diagnosis or suffer the death of a loved one.
I think we have to practice acceptance. Both words are equally important. We accept what we cannot change, but the practice of acceptance is to remind ourselves of all the good things we have enjoyed in life. It is to balance the pluses and the negatives. It is also to resist a downward spiral through endless rumination and ultimately depression. Paradoxically the practice of acceptance requires a lot of effort. It is not passive.
Dr Shane Clifton is one of Australia’s best theologians. At age 40 he had an accident which rendered him quadriplegic and dependent on a motorized wheel-chair to get around. He was teaching at Alpha Crucis College a Pentecostal Bible College. His story abounds with ironies. As a Pentecostal he had to endure countless public prayers for healing and the inevitable accusation that he lacked faith. As a theologian he considered the accident random and attribute it, in his own memorable words, “dumb luck”. He accepted his disability and has become a world renown disability theologian – now associated with Sydney University because he was fired from the Bible College. He supported LGBTQ rights and went in the mardi gras parade.
- Pain and Suffering
Psychologists who work with chronic pain patients often make a distinction between pain and suffering. I will use the example of ‘Mary’ who has chronic lower back pain. This was the result of a fall in a shopping centre. She had surgery but the pain persists. It is an unavoidable legacy of her injury.
There are three natural responses: (a) Mary might withdraw, avoid any activity, basically remain bed-bound. There may be some initial benefit in avoiding pain since physical activity can aggravate it, but she will require a lot of physical support, eventually exhaust her family and friends and gradually become isolated. She will become increasingly depressed. All these extra effects can be labelled suffering. Therefore, she has both physical pain and emotional suffering. (b) Mary might use substances to avoid her pain such as food, alcohol, overly rely on pain medication, or distractions such as online gambling. Again this may have some temporary benefit in masking pain but eventually the negative effects of her coping will lead to an increase in suffering. (c) Or Mary could see a pain specialist physician and psychologist. They would encourage her to increase her activity and reduce the pain medication. This would have the short-term effect of increasing her physical pain but it would potentially decrease suffering. She might conclude, “It hurts more to walk to the park with my grandchildren but being with them and enjoying their playful interaction is worth the cost.”
None of this is easy. But I believe there is a very important principle for our emotional self-care and eventual mental health.
I will now use myself as an example. I have lived my life as one of the most privileged in our society: white male, middle-class, educated, professional, affluent, heterosexual, a citizen of the first world. I am the stereotype of the oppressor for almost every disadvantaged group in society. But I consider myself blessed for no good reason.
But no matter how fortunate you are there is an age when you ‘start dogging bullets’. For me it was about age 65. I have lost friends and family members who were younger, but it seemed exceptional. 2½ years ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a deteriorating neurological disorder with no known cure. Today I consider myself about 3-4% disabled but with time this will certainly get worse and eventually I will need residential care (if I don’t die sooner from something more life threatening). I have the goal of living the next 10 years with some quality of life.
I find the distinction of pain and suffering enormously helpful. I have some physical pain from stiffness and occasional muscle aches, slight balance issues and annoying things like difficulty swallowing. My most obvious symptom is my left arm tremor, but that is only embarrassing. Pain at present is minimal but there is much to worry about from a shortened lifespan, to possible immobility, to dementia and even psychosis.
So I exercise, take medication, do an alternative therapy with red-light laser treatment and ‘live life to the full’. Suffering is minimal. For example, I have retired as an academic and a clinical psychologist, will retire at the end of the year as a forensic psych but want to continue in ministry which I enjoy. I used to joke that in the Uniting Church most congregations are 70-90 years old (so everyone had some disability) but then I called to GUC the youngest congregation I know of in presbytery! One of the reasons I pay bass in the band is because last year I gave it up because of the Parkinson’s. I am not a very good musician, but why give something up when you enjoy it?
It is easy spiritualize all this: to say trust God and all will be OK. But it is rarely that simple and being a Christian is never a formula for magical protection. But most believers have some sense of God working in our lives, what has been called providence. Paul in his letter to the Romans expressed it, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (8:28)
We can pray for a sense of God’s presence when we go through difficult circumstances and hope for a favourable outcome. We can practice acceptance for that which we cannot change. We can accept physical pain and do everything possible to minimize emotional suffering.
I would never have thought of Donald Rumsfeld as a philosopher. You might recall that he was Defence Secretary under President George Bush and practically ran the country. He said something memorable in relation to Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, “There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns, that is to say that there are somethings we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns: the one we don’t know we don’t know.” I think that there are things we sense but cannot fully know, and spiritual reality has this quality. Perhaps we can learn to trust in ‘what we sense but cannot know fully.’
There is a final scene in movie September Gun (1983). There is an old gunfighter and his nephew. The young man says, “I can’t understand it Uncle Ben, that nun did everything wrong and yet it came out OK.” Uncle Ben said, “Just keep thinking about it Jason.”
Rev Dr Bruce Stevens is an endorsed clinical psychologist and supply minister at GUC.