“Robin Hope”

preached Aug 17th, 2014

Mark 5:1-20

They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when [Jesus] had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’

For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. 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. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.


Oh, God, I wish it were that easy.  I wish that a heartfelt prayer and faith would just will away the demons of mental illness and addiction all the things that really plague us and those we love.  Obviously in the the scriptural case the illness of the Gerasene man was incapacitating, outwardly shown by his inability to clothe himself or find a place to live other than the graveyard. Obviously his community tried to restrain him, oust him, and prevent him from acting upon himself and his illness.  They couldn’t do anything more.  They aren’t Jesus. 

For those hurting, today, though… it isn’t always so obvious.  It rarely is.  Robin Williams’ death has brought up awareness, trauma, and grief for so many, and shows how pain isn’t always immediately recognizable.  Like Robin, most people living with mental illness have no outward signs.  Yet one in four adults is living with some sort of mental illness. 1

  Depression and mental illness can be like an invisible weight between one and the world, separating self from emotion, thought, feeling… entering into a nothingness.  It doesn’t matter what riches one has, or doesn’t have… what one is capable of or where one lives… it can be there, too.  Further, the added weight of the stigma around getting help or going to therapy or reaching out has been heavy handed, though I believe it’s gradually lifting. 

For those of us with the privilege of mental wellness, it doesn’t make sense.  We don’t get it.  We simply can’t.  We’re so used to a quick-fix, so the scripture’s “send it into the pigs” method seems so… attractive.  But still today, we aren’t Jesus.  Other than to be there, be present, and with love gently help those hurting to the people trained to help, it seems we can’t do much else.  For those who are people of action, it’s so frustrating to not have an immediate plan and response.

God, I wish depression wasn’t a thing that daily weighs down some, and some I love, incapacitating them and driving them closer and closer to…. what?  The cliff?  It’s overwhelming.  And terrifying.  And for some, the cliff is so very, very close.

The Comic book the Watchmen tells this supposed “joke:”   Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says “But Doctor… I am Pagliacci.”  2-Watchmen

Except the joke’s not funny.  When Robin Williams died, it felt for a moment that Hope was gone.  All week, I’ve found myself almost randomly letting tears flow over small things, because it feels so deeply affective, when I’m brave enough to take my head out of the sand and see what’s going on all across the world.  Human lives taken through depression and mental illness and senseless violence.  Robin felt not so far from us, having kept us company for decades in film, bringing us to laughter and tears.  For others, the reality of depression is so very close.

I have no idea what God is doing in these moments of pain and panic, depression and emptiness.  Not a clue.  I do have faith that God is there.  Further I have faith that this is not the first time that Christ has seen this kind of stuff, or even experienced it in the dark night himself, calling out his own emptiness, loneliness, and despair unto God.   I confess, there have been moments this past week where I’ve reached out to God for help. 

I am privileged, though, to feel hope.  To know the certainty that it will get better.  I am privileged to know that these moments of pain and grief will pass.

And for some, this is not the case.  For some, hope is this distant, elusive, thing that people talk at them about… it’s flown the coop of Pandora’s box out into the wind, leaving behind….. emptiness.  My hope is that Robin’s death continues his legacy and inspires those who are hurting deeply to reach out for help, for support, for treatment.  To continue the journey to wellness, the process to their own wholeness. 

Those who give care and professional help to people living with overwhelming depression speak of “hope in escrow….”  Even though hope seems lost or evasive, it is our job to hold it in care for the wounded, until they are ready to see hope themselves again.  Tenderly, so tenderly, hold the hope close to our own hearts for those we love.  We can’t send it all away, or perform miracles.  We can’t take on and thus will away the pain of another.  We can offer to hold their hope, and, too, offer that to the One Who Holds Hope for Us All, for when we are ready to see it ourselves.

For me, I know faith is involved, here, too.  Where I can’t see the hope, I know that God has my hope in escrow.  I know that Christ, knowing the depths of despair himself, still holds hope for the human race, for us, for our future.  There’s the Good News, isn’t it?  That even here, with all our confusion, our apathy, our bitterness, our rage, pain, our despair, even with our depression and our mental illness, with all we have and all we are; all this we offer in prayer to One who Knows already.  The poet Elizabeth Cunningham reveals Truth:

(Praying the heart by Elizabeth Cunningham)

You can only pray what’s in your heart.

So if your heart is being ripped from your chest


pray the tearing

if your heart is full of bitterness


pray it to the last dreg


if your heart is a river gone wild

pray the torrent


or a lava flow scorching the mountain

pray the fire


pray the scream in your heart

the fanning bellows


pray the rage,

the murder and

the mourning


pray your heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it

like the small bird it is.        3



This is what we have.  The emotions on heart of the events of the world and of our community and of our lives…. and this is what we offer to God to hold for us.   Even where it seems that depression is robbing hope, God is here.  We pray that even in the midst of…. all this…. even when it feels empty and lonely and overwhelming, even when it seems as though hope himself is killed off, Christ reaches out his wounded hands in so much love and compassion, holding the most tender thing of all: hope.




1 http://www.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf

2 http://comicbook.com/blog/2014/08/12/watchmen-joke-goes-viral-after-robin-williams-death/

3 Cunningham, Elizabeth.  Small Bird.  Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1999.



preached on August 10th, 2014



Exodus 4:10-17

 But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?  Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”   But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.”   

Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad.  You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do.  He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him.  Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.”


I spent the last week with 7 high school students from all over New Hampshire and Maine.  We went between the two camps of the United Church of Christ up north: Pilgrim Lodge in Maine, and Horton Center in New Hampshire.  At one point, the other group leader and I sat in a circle and invited them to share their experiences of faith and where they are on their faith journey up until this point.

Despite the team building, the emotional closeness, and the intentional community that we’d spent time creating, they were so hesitant to share!  Even with two PK’s (Pastor’s Kids) in the group of only 7, they were fearful that their experiences of God and the world and religion would be judged.  While they all had grown up in UCC churches, they still struggled HEAVILY with their own internalized reaction to what the greater Christian Picture presented in our culture at large dictates.

As much as we are so intentional about trying to articulate to our youth about what our faith is about, we don’t… we can’t… speak it enough.  For 5 of the 7, they weren’t sure about God because they liked Science a whole lot.  They were hesitant about talking about their faith because it was new for them– They weren’t sure about religion because they didn’t have a safe place to talk about it, anywhere.  Articulating God-stuff was so overwhelming and confusing that they didn’t want to speak at all.  Even in a church setting, there were echoes of they “oh, politics and religion, these are the things we don’t talk about around the table because: conflict.” 

The language just wasn’t present for them in a way that was accessible to describe the feelings.  The way in which their lives had gone, the language that they had been working with their entire lives, wasn’t adequate to describe the faith that they wanted, or experienced.  They were afraid to speak, and speak “wrong.”  Their experience is not unique for Christian teenagers.

Despite the fact that many of them have had experiences of feeling connected to God, each other, and their world, and especially at camp, they are hesitant to speak.  They have had proverbial Mountain Top experiences to which they could point: places in the wilderness, perhaps atop the mountain, where they with their peers experienced the wholeness of creation as fully as they were able.  Even this past week, on Wednesday when we hiked up to the top of Pine Mountain at Horton Center, we watched the sun set over the Mountains in the distance, Mt. Washington and the Presidentials to our left and the trail back down to camp site on our right… the view was breathtaking, and golden, the sun blazing through the trees and lighting up everything as though it were on fire.

Then, as we took off our shoes on this sacred ground, and rolled out our sleeping bags on the rock cliff, the holiness of the moment poured forth, washing the youth and counselors with spirit.  The language wasn’t really there… they couldn’t speak… and yet still they knew they were in the presence of Holy.

It’s interesting– Language seems to slow us down sometimes between ourselves and God. What do we do when words overwhelm us?  After his illumination by the bush afire, and in conversation with God, Moses flat out begged not to be used by God, holding up his stutter and lack of language as a deterrent to speaking his experience of God.

But God works in crazy ways and God still found a way.  Using Moses’s brother Aaron, the messages still got to the people Israel, calling them to see God’s path before them.  The words themselves don’t seem to matter much– Aaron helps with Moses’ eloquence.  Like Moses, like the youth at camp this past week, words can slow us down, sometimes, it seems.

In participating in worship with Rabbinical Students at Hebrew College, I’ve always envied the art of prayer in wordless melody…. Niggun.  To sing praise and ask for help from and give thanks to the divine for all of the things and all of the people and all of the ways.  Sometimes in a joyous outburst of melody, …..sometimes a wordless lament, ….the music takes over and offers prayer instead of the words.  There is a place to speak.

We all can stumble in articulation of God or prayer.  The poet Mary Oliver writes:


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”                                               

The disciples, too, wondered how to speak of God.  When they implored Jesus what words to use, he imparted upon them the Lord’s Prayer… one we know so well that there are times when the words themselves cease to make meaning and the flow of the rhythm that we know so well takes over and allows a space for God to sneak in through the experience.  It becomes so much a part of who we are that even when memory begins to slip away, the words of the prayer stay with us.  Or even for those who have not been to church in decades or since their childhood, the words of the prayer allow the space to speak.

God empowers us to speak, even when we think we don’t have words.  Last week, as the days went on, the youth I was with eventually felt safe enough to voice their doubts, their fears, their woundedness with religion, and also safe enough to open their hearts to the experience that the week at camp would bring, in a new way.  Hearing the language articulated around them, the words that brought faith into action, people modeling and enacting a progressive theology that makes sense to teenagers where they are in the world now, subsequently gave them permission to speak their own truth.

God finds a new way to allow us to speak.  Whether through others like Aaron, through wordless tunes enabling our feelings to pour forth, through poetry, prayers we already know so deeply and intimately, God can help our voices come through.  And sometimes,  even those who think they don’t have the words or the language can step up, empowered, and lead others in incredible ways, breaking spirit open and pouring forth the words.

Just as my hope and prayer for these youth was that they found a way to articulate what God and camp and community meant for them, I pray the same for us all.  I pray that God grants us the words, helps us to speak the truth, empowers us to tell of the way in which God has transformed our lives every day: from the experience of the mountain top and the burning bush to the every day routine of being a human in the world.  God finds a way to allow us to speak.



Oliver, Mary. Thirst. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.