Empathy for All: Mental Health Sunday by Rev. Mark Poindexter

Rev. Mark Poindexter, West Side Christian Church

Scripture: Psalm 31:9-12
Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak. Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbors and an object of dread to my closest friends—those who see me on the street flee from me. I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery.

Every year, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) creates an Annual Planning Guide and Calendar. It’s an 18-month calendar that our general church puts out with the intent of helping congregations plan their year. Our church secretary orders about a dozen to give to our church leadership so they might use it as they plan their events.  It is also in this planning guide, you can learn that in addition to the normal liturgical year which includes Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost, there are many Sundays that have their own designation. In other words, there is Laity Sunday, General Assembly Promotion Sunday, Boy Scout Sunday, Girl Scout Sunday, Campfire Sunday and Camp Promotion Sunday. There is also Race Relations Sunday and National Global Warming Sunday and Peace Sunday, along with Freedom and Democracy Sunday and Christian Family Sunday – and of course Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. It seems like every time you turn around, there is a special Sunday for everything.

Truth is it’s hard to keep track of it all and, in fact, for the most part I don’t. Though all these causes have good reason to be promoted, and there is a time and place for them to be promoted, I decided early on in my ministry that preaching the gospel, preaching the story, preaching about Jesus, was going to be my focus whatever special Sunday it might. I figured if I stuck with preaching the gospel, which has been task enough itself for me, all the other causes could somehow fall under that ever-inclusive umbrella. And I’ve stayed true to that decision for almost three decades. I remember once, it was my very first Sunday in a church I was just beginning to serve. I can even tell you what Sunday it was, February 22, 1998 – almost 20 years ago. I was walking down the aisle between the pews to lead worship there for the very first time. When half-way down the aisle, a man jumped out of his pew and started talking in my ear. He said, “It’s Boy Scout Sunday. We support a troop, and they are here, what are we going to do about it?”  First Sunday, just as worship was beginning. Nobody had said anything to me that week about the Boy Scouts being there. So, I stopped in the aisle looked at the man and said, “Well, I don’t know what you are going to do about it, but I think I’m going to preach the gospel because that’s my job.”

Well, I’m changing my decades old decision today. I’m going to speak about the topic that this Sunday is given to in the Disciples Annual Planning Guide and Calendar. If you were to look in this guide, you would see that today is “Mental Health Sunday.” I think the fact that Mental Health Sunday follows Mother’s Day is an acknowledgement that many of us have driven our mothers nearly insane.  The reason, I have chosen to address the topic of this Sunday’s designation is because it is a deeply personal issue for me. I think also, it is likely that the issue of mental health is a deeply personal issue for many of you. Whether it be yourself or someone in your family, with statistics showing that it is possible that 1 out of every 4 people deals with a serious, acute or chronic mental illness – things like severe and debilitating depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), eating disorders and addictions – it is likely that all of us, in one way or another, have had our lives touched by mental illness.

Yet, for many different reasons, both in our culture and the church, we too often remain silent about this important matter and there is a stigma attached to mental illness. A stigma that often results in feelings of guilt and shame and a sense of failure in people who are already being bombarded by those demons and struggling to make it through each day. In a piece he wrote for the National Benevolent Association’s new initiative on Mental Health, Pastor Perry Wiggins from Nashville, Tennessee, wrote these words:

“Too often the church is a silent voice regarding mental health illness, and it causes too many of our sisters and brothers to suffer in shame, while feeling neglected and abandoned. If I am to be a prophetic voice to God’s people, then I must through my preaching, counter the stigma of mental illness so that no one in the church is made to feel ‘less than’ or ostracized because of their mental health struggles.”

Like Pastor Wiggins, through today’s sermon, I hope to help break the stigma associated with mental illness. I hope to help alleviate some of the shame and feelings of failure that accompany this particular illness. I seek to do this, by making myself vulnerable to you. For you see, mental illness has long been a part of my journey. When I was very young, we were told that a couple of my aunts had a case of “the nerves.” Only years later did I learn what that meant. My father battled alcoholism for his entire life. My sister and I have come to believe that the alcohol was how Dad medicated himself to fight his own battle with “the nerves,” which for him was deep depression. My brother, David, was a brilliant lawyer and college professor at Houghton University in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but at 54 years of age the bi-polar illness that he struggled with his whole life – claimed him when he took his own life. He left behind three beautiful children.

Not only has mental illness been part of my family’s life, it has been part of mine. Twice in life, I have had strong battles with the demon known as depression. Back in 2004, I preached for the first time a sermon that mentioned in detail depression. It was the same congregation, where the Boy Scouts were on my first Sunday. It was six years after that. I did not know when I preached that sermon, that just a few months later, I would find myself at war with severe depression to the point that at times I would cry uncontrollably. Sometimes my whole body would start shaking and I did not know why. I could not concentrate. I was consumed with worry and a sense of failure and for me the worst part was the insomnia. I could not sleep. One time, I went three straight nights without sleeping even though I was on strong medication to help me sleep.  My mind would not rest – it just filled with continuous thoughts, often the same thought over and over and over again. I could not stop them. When that happened, on the fourth day I could not function.

That was the first occurrence of depression in my own life. I was 42 years old. The second came after the end of my 24-year marriage, it happened abruptly and unexpectedly. That event sent me into a spiral in which I lost my voice to preach, my pen to write and my will to lead. I had to take a long time away from ministry, I could not do it. I was in a 2,000 square foot home that I loved, my wife who I considered my best friend was gone, the kids were away at school and I was there by myself. I actually don’t remember much about the first 5-6 months of that time. I asked my sister what I did and she says I, “Mostly just sat there surrounded by walls and your sense of loss.”

I know the battle of depression well. And the best I can I have tried to face it honestly and helpfully for others. I have written numerous articles about this for the online journal [D]mergent. The first one I wrote was called “The Church, Depression and the death of Matthew Warren.”

In sharing my story, about my battle with mental illness I’m not looking for sympathy from anyone. I’m looking to help people who are afraid to reveal to others their own mental and emotional struggles. I want folks to know that in me they will find a non-judgmental, compassionate and caring person. Not only a pastor who is willing to be with them in the darkness, but a person who has walked deeply and for extended periods in that darkness myself.

The reason I read this morning from Psalm 31 is because the words of the psalmist in this section are words that I have experienced. They were very real to me. For those of us who have encountered within ourselves the struggles of mental illness, we know that of which the psalmist writes, “I am in distress, my soul and my body are wasting away, my life is spent with sorrow, my strength fails because of misery, I am the horror of my neighbors, I have passed out of mind like one who is dead, I have become like a broken vessel.”

Though those words, of course, have an element of sadness to them, I know that when I read those words in the midst of my own dark times, it gave me great comfort to know that our sacred text gave voice to the feelings I was experiencing. That the psalmist was willing to share the authentic truthfulness of his own struggles, gave me some strength in my own experience, and offered me encouragement to share, in appropriate and healthy ways, my story, with the hope that it might be helpful to others.

And I think it has been. My willingness to share and be authentic has led me to have a small role in NBA’s Mental Health & Wellness Initiative. The writings about my story have been read by thousands and shared multiple times via social media. I’ve received numerous notes from people who expressed appreciation for my willingness to be vulnerable to others. I want to share a couple. They were sent to me after my article “Broken, but not Shattered,” was published.  The first comes from Rebecca Hale, a former regional minister who I have worked with on a few matters. This is what she wrote:

Mark, after I shared your article, a dear friend sent this to me. Rebecca, thank you
for sharing Dr. Poindexter’s article. One year ago today, I was looking forward to
discharge from my stay at St. Joseph’s Mental Heal Unit in Tacoma where I was
being treated for a deep and gripping depression and terrifying non-stop anxiety.
It was followed by another week’s stay shortly after. I’ve struggled with God this
year and understanding the root of what happened. Dr. Poindexter’s words about
forgiveness made me realize it is something I need to work on. And I had not
thought to call my symptoms grief but is seems appropriate to. In short, your
sharing of this article has been a blessing for me today. I’m grateful you shared it
and so glad he was brave enough to share.

The other is from a former parishioner, a young woman who is a very high achiever and lives  in the DC area. I did her wedding several years back.

Mark, at the moment, I don’t know if I can form enough words to write more than “thank you” but I want to try. Last night, I felt myself slip further into my depression and anxiety. I told my husband it made me feel like not being a mom, not being a wife, not being me. I have contacted a counselor and I am hoping to get in soon. I want you to know that I am so comforted by knowing that someone so strong in my eyes, can still feel lost, broken and defeated but find the courage to rise again.

I share my story, not for sympathy, but to give some folks the comfort and courage to make it another day. There was a time, when I wondered if my battle with depression would keep me from being a leader in the church. If people would see it as a character flaw that disqualified me from roles of leadership. And I had been a leader both in the communities I served and the church I loved. I was even the regional moderator of Indiana when my second bout of depression hit. I was helping to oversee the work of 180 Disciple congregations. Could I ever lead again? Would I ever find my voice? Would people accept me if I shared my story? Then I came across the book Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.  In reading that book, I learned that our former President, struggled his entire life with depressive thoughts and once spent six months almost entirely in bed. Yet, he is close to universally understood to be not only our nation’s greatest president, but also one of history’s best leaders ever. The author of the book, Joshua Shenk, says that after the death of his sons, Lincoln’s melancholy would become a paralyzing depression, and even led to suicidal thoughts. Yet, Lincoln learned to articulate the significance of his suffering so that it was not merely an obstacle to overcome but a component of this goodness and integral to his leadership.

Lincoln learned to appreciate the complexity of life and to persevere when situations looked hopeless.  I don’t know if I ever will have the opportunity to lead in the same way I once did, but I know I am blessed to be among you and fill this pulpit, and I hope through my own experience I have become a more compassionate and understanding person and leader, who knows that there are complexities to your life, that are part of your story.

In closing, there is so much that I have not touched on concerning mental illness.  We haven’t mentioned the TV series, “13 Reasons Why” about teen suicide and the cultural phenomenon it is. We haven’t mentioned that 60 percent of gun deaths in America are suicides and that the number one reason for suicide is untreated depression. These are very important matters, for which the church should be a safe place to discuss them. But I do want to say this, mental illness has many components, both in its cause and its treatment. It can be a medical issue and medicines can help. It can be an environmental issue – that is, traumas one experiences can impact the way our brains work and the way we think, so talk therapy is important. It is also a spiritual matter, in that we are trying to make sense of life and sometimes, for whatever reason, for some of us that sense is missing, so we need a community of support.

The church needs to be a place, where people can safely and appropriately share their story and experience an expression of welcome. I want for others to know that not only am I a person of compassion and non-judgmental support as they go through their trial of mental illness, I want them to know I serve a church that welcomes and supports them as well. We are not created to fight this battle alone – we are created to be present with each other in such times.

Well, I broke from my rule today. I don’t know if you would call what I just did preaching or not. I know it was different than any other sermon I have ever prepared. I don’t know how you will receive – but honestly, I’m not worried about that at all. I believe somebody needed to hear this today, so that they are not alone, and that’s what matters to me.  Amen.