I woke up dismal and dark and empty for a few days last week. And then I heard it. Can you hear the hush?
It’s the quiet anticipation of an aching planet. It’s a steady, tender conviction.
Can you hear it? It’s there despite its bleak fragility. It hums the assurance that while shadows and failure stalk our steps, one is powerful enough to uphold everything.
We will indeed have a new beginning; the deepest untold yearnings will finally be realised according to the prophet’s poem. The poem that tells of gold and vibrant colours, abundant growth and fresh joy, royal perfumes and holy worship.
Of sorrow and sighing fleeing away.
The poem that tells of a beautiful, conquering king: gracious, righteous, meek.
Order that was brought into what was formless and void, is slowly being pulled downward. But hope tarries, stepping away from the pull, and looks upward. For one has promised to redeem.
To make all things new.
So in the hush and the grey, we pause to listen and we hear that hidden melody of hope and redemption.
Centuries ago criminals and slaves were branded by a hot iron and the mark left was referred to as the stigma. It was a permanent, visible sign of disgrace, enslaving someone, or reducing someone to a failing from the past. It rendered them irredeemable. Today stigma takes on a different form, but its power to hurt and isolate is still there. It can be applied to anyone, for anything, whether they deserve it or not.
Today the hot iron is the tongue, and its scalding fire is speech. It gathers strength as people draw together in suspicion, voicing disapproval. Instead of honest inquiry, they use biased observations to confirm their views. It becomes a prejudice that never bends to acknowledge what is right in front of them. If the one who holds the prejudice also holds the power, it can be brutally destructive.
For the victim, it’s a place of isolation where their judgment is questioned and their opinions don’t count as much as others’ do. In my last post I spoke about the comfort that we get as Christians: the assurance that he who rules over all things sees us and hears us with compassion, and he can answer our prayers. But how does he know what stigma feels like?
The man from Nazareth
We have heard about the man who, two thousand years ago, walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know much about what he looked like, other than there was nothing special about his appearance. We have heard of the extraordinary miracles. When we read the gospels we see one who spoke with authority, who taught, who had great power but who also had compassion, who was accessible, who answered questions. He was kind to the afflicted, he challenged social norms by engaging with the outcast, and he spoke cutting words to the proud. He even healed diseases. Thousands of people gathered around him, actively seeking him out, to hear his words, to get close to him, to touch his garment to be healed. They gave him little time to rest. He was like streams in the desert; he was what they longed for. They loved him.
We also know how he died. How could it have come to that? The religious elite, experts in the Mosaic Law, were corrupting its practices with their pride, abuse and hypocrisy. Jesus called them out, and they didn’t like it. They refused to see the fulfilment of that Law, right in front of them. Opposition also came from those with political power, loyal to Rome: a ruling force with a criminal justice system that could bend to the whims of a mob. A force that would quickly quell a hint of rebellion. A force with instruments of torture like the cross of crucifixion at its disposal.
While these two groups had little in common, they gathered together, intent on destroying Jesus. Among those in power he was assigned the stigma of a troublemaker who needed to be stopped.
And as the opposition intensified, the ruling powers achieved their aim. He was betrayed and arrested at night, unlawfully tried, beaten and his hands and feet were nailed to a cross. He was lifted up on that cross to die while being derided by passers by and mocked by the religious authorities. His disciples fled. Women who followed him could only look on, weeping.
He bore the disgrace of a public Roman execution, the sentence given to someone who was rendered irredeemable, when he himself had committed no crime. But it also reaches a whole new level. He chose to bear a stigma no-one else has and no-one ever again will feel.
The great exchange
In a higher court than the court in Jerusalem, a great exchange was taking place.
As human beings we have lost our way. We naturally ignore God. Our failings of thought, word and deed are a mortal affront to our Creator. Some failings are worse than others, but when it comes to God’s perfect law, the simple fact is we haven’t kept it. This is what brought death and pain into the world. This is what ultimately isolates us from God and each other.
He would not leave us to it.
Jesus knew that he would die in the way that he did. It had been written centuries before he came. He had seen how wickedness and death affected us, and he was indignant against it. He knew that the only just way for us to be delivered from it, was for someone who had never fallen short to willingly bear the full force of justice and die in our place. He set his face like flint and deliberately walked straight towards it. He rebuked those who tried to stop it, he commended those who believed him when he warned them about it.
He was heaven on earth and he never, not once fell short, but chose to bear the wrath, isolation, shame, nakedness, and the curse of the thorny ground on his head. He committed himself to bear it in our place so that we could live forever. It’s a need we could never have met, but he met it at immense cost to himself. History hinges around it.
He did it for us
Jesus entered into the stigmatisation of this world and felt it all, right up to its end. So he can sympathise with whatever isolation that is inflicted on us by others. But this is the most liberating part: when it was our failings that at a fundamental level isolated us, Jesus broke those walls down. We were stuck in death, mourning, crying and pain, and he did not despise our affliction, but entered into the depths of human experience, to set us free.
When he showed himself to be alive again after death, those scars on his hands and feet – those marks of final disgrace – were still there on his resurrected body. They declare for all time that the he has defeated death.
And having removed our isolation, his joy is to gather us together to him. It is the ultimate “counter-stigma”.
The man who walked the shores of Galilee is alive today. With joy and singing, never ashamed of us, the loving defender of sinners, the man of sorrows, welcomes us with strong, protective outstretched arms. This is the love that captivates me and speaks to my soul. This is why I sing, “Hallelujah! Praise and honour unto thee.”
A few years ago, a photo of a wolf pack went viral. The caption claimed that the first three were old and sick, the stronger ones were in the middle and the alpha was in the back. People loved the idea that the pack slowed down to the pace of the older ones, and that the stronger ones looked out for the weaker ones. Sadly it was not accurate. But we all wanted it to be. We applaud the idea because we know we are all, on some level, broken.
We also know that slowing down is costly.
It’s natural to recoil from something that looks scary or difficult. We can’t bear all the burdens. If mental health becomes dangerous, it is appropriate to put up boundaries. But if our response is based on prejudice or gossip or a determination to ignore or isolate, it becomes mental health stigma.
Mental health stigma isn’t always mockery or insults. It is insidious rejection and it can even be done under the guise of caring for someone. Its poison is speech: gossip, slander, prejudice, persistent advice. It pushes down. It doesn’t listen. It isolates.
It can sneak in at work, with friends, at church, or at the doctor’s surgery. It starts in passive ways: we aren’t invited because they think we wouldn’t want to come; they don’t visit when they were invited, because they think we wouldn’t cope; or we aren’t considered for new opportunities at work. We aren’t always taken seriously. It progresses to being offered conflicting advice. If advice isn’t taken, we can be accused of being manipulative. We are blamed for what we’re battling. People speak about it among themselves, “out of concern”, forming opinions without taking the time to listen. Among Christians it can take the form of demanding a sort of supernatural perfection that is devoid of sadness. Our devotion is questioned. It’s our fault again. Not so long ago we could have been threatened with being fired from our jobs if we sought medical help.
So in the end, when we most need support, we might find the door shut, and a wall built around us. The isolation, poverty and distorted opinions that are forced on us make us even more vulnerable.
When it happens, it can be mystifying. I had been honest with people because I thought I was safe with them or because I was obligated to in a work contract. When it became clear that gossip and prejudice had entered the fold, for a long time later it was hard to know who to trust. It made the burden ten times heavier.
The feeble bind on strength
Hannah’s story is recorded in the Old Testament. It occurred when the Israelites were at a very low point, before Israel had been established as a kingdom.
Hannah was barren. She was married to a man who also had another wife, Peninnah. And Peninnah did have children. Every year they would go together to a place called Shiloh, where the tent of meeting was, to worship the Lord.
It should have been a happy time – seeing old friends and feasting – but in the very place where Hannah should have found the most joy, Peninnah took advantage of her vulnerability. Year after year, Peninnah would provoke Hannah because she didn’t have children. On top of that, her husband didn’t think she should be upset – because she had him and apparently that was better than ten sons. He loved her, and gave her more food, and according to him, that should be enough. So Hannah did what any believer would do in that situation: she poured her heart out to God. The religious leader watching did not encourage her. Instead he jumped to the conclusion that she was drunk.
Hannah is provoked by her husband’s other wife, silenced by her husband, and when she is most desperate and honest with God, her religious leader assumes the worst. She is isolated and it’s not her fault. But this is the key: the unburdening of her heart to someone who listens with true compassion is enough to sustain her before anything she has asked for has been granted. “….Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.”
In a final blow to her stigma, God gave Hannah a son.
Hannah’s song tells us what she knew about God: that all the fortunes of the world are at his steady command, he rules over the power-bearers of the time, and he sets his special favour on those who are downtrodden and look to him.“Not by might shall a man prevail”.
So it can be with us.
In the warped isolation of stigma, we can lay before him what we need, whether it’s a loyal friend who listens, or a job, or protection. I waited and prayed. Battles were lost and I got up again. And prayers were answered. I got a job when all the odds were stacked against me. I was successful when people didn’t expect me to be. I also got a loyal friend. He does answer. And even before they are answered, when the voices around us, however well-meaning, seem to devour us, there is one who rules over all things, and he sees us. We need people, but when everyone has gone, he is the one who stays. He is the alpha wolf who slows to our pace, keeping watch. It’s a care that is borne of compassion, because he knows what stigma feels like.
Next post: Hope Against Hope (3): What does Jesus know about stigma?
There is a weed in my front garden. I pull it up but after a few months, there it is again.
Depression for me is like that weed. I became a Christian 25 years ago, and like many Christians, I couldn’t believe that anyone who knew the significance of the good news could also know despair. I thought I was done with it. Over the years there have been joyful times, but, like that ugly and obtrusive weed with the impossibly long tap root, depression and complex PTSD have always come back.
Have you ever seen an armadillo suddenly curl itself up when it detects a threat? In a moment it turns itself into an odd, heavily armoured football. You can see it here. Similarly, our brains are designed for protection. They remember the times when we were in danger. So when circumstances are overwhelming, parts of our circuitry can go into a kind of shut-down mode. Sometimes we are set on edge, ready to fight, or fly, or freeze. Sometimes it deadens our sense of being alive. Demands still need to be met so we resist the urge to hide. Chemicals wage war in our bodies. They don’t ask for permission. The days are debilitating. It takes a whole lot to keep all these things at bay.
“Call your GP”?
It’s often the first thing we are asked: “Have you spoken to your GP?” Medicine and therapy are often essential but the system fights against us.
We wait on hold for 30 minutes. We put the phone on speaker as we try to keep a clear head and manage endless demands at home, while having to listen to screechy music interrupted with the perpetual apology, “We are currently very busy.” We guard our privacy as we articulate the urgency of the problem to a faceless receptionist who might assume we are a burden on the system.
We wait for the call-back. We don’t know when it will come. We don’t know which GP it will be and if we miss the call we’ll probably have to start the process all over again. We can’t call anyone else or drive somewhere or be otherwise distracted in case we miss it. We are scared of being stigmatised and misunderstood. Our stress levels continue to rise.
The call comes from an over-worked GP who deals with the vast scope of health issues presented to them each day. Within the 10 minutes allotted to the appointment, the natural suggestion is to prescribe medication without a managed care plan. Anything more than needing a GP every three months can’t be properly engaged with, unless things have got to the point of requiring drastic intervention.
Funded counselling sessions are strictly limited in number. Online portals send us around in circles with broken links. Private therapy is sometimes so expensive that we cut back on other needs, like food and warmth, just to get the bare minimum. The side-effects of medication include nightmares, weight changes, gut problems, drowsiness – all for the greater good of not being depressed. It can take weeks for our bodies to adjust to medication. Sometimes it isn’t right and we have to start again with something else. It can take weeks to find a therapist, then longer to settle into therapy only to realise that the therapist wasn’t right for us. Stress levels rise further. If we are mums, our children don’t stop needing us throughout this disjointed, at times fruitless process. They might need us even more than usual, and when we’re drowning in frustration, still we are told, “Call your GP.” It sounds practical. It sounds easy. It sounds like we have no excuse and everything is taken care of.
In the empty spaces
Writers of Scripture were sometimes shocking in their honesty towards God. The Psalmists expressed being hunted, trapped, oppressed, abandoned, and abused by people. They felt far from God, appealing to him with desperation, expressing deep frustrations at the disparity between the good and kind God they believe him to be and the horror of their lives.
These words are in the Bible. They are prayers that God himself approved to be included in the Bible. They are far from the pattern on display at church on Sundays. They even commend the silence that comes when our lips are dry and we sit and wait. They show undeniably that God knows: he knows how frustrating it is, he knows that at times we just don’t understand him, we thought he would come through for us and things don’t make sense.
They show that he knows it better than anyone. So it can all be brought to him.
He is the friend and advocate that we all deeply long for: a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering.
Many Christians still think that despair is wrong, but it is in acknowledging the reality of our circumstances that our faith shows itself. It is a faith that is honest. It doesn’t deny that in the midst of all the beauty, this world can be cruel. With Jesus, we don’t need to put on a front of positive words in order to look good.
My depression has brought with it overwhelming feelings of failure and uselessness. They sap my energy and affect my relationships. I have found myself unable to do basic tasks, while demands have only increased in intensity. I’ve tried multiple medications, and when I was younger I had stays in clinics alongside people in the throes of horrifying affliction. I never want to go back. And still the weed breaks the soil and spreads its thorny leaves. As I have grown my management of it has improved a great deal, but I still pray for it to go away for good. I have hope that one day it will.
In the meantime, this is the privilege I have found: when we are broken, overwhelmed, and not in the least presentable – not clad in a heavily armoured suit like our friend, the armadillo, but perhaps with crazy hair and scruffy joggers – we can find a friend who is closer than a brother. When in those empty spaces, I have met him in the Scriptures. He is someone who, with compassion, sits beside us in our pain. He brings the sweet safety of being known, and it fills a void that no-one else ever can. This is what keeps me going.