Psyc Center Lessons


I am a student at a psychiatric rehabilitation center. It is a place that throws into relief what systemic oppression does to an individual, their families, and their friends. I must adjust to ambiguity and mystery and profound pain and suffering, especially when I see histories of devastating offenses toward other people, with seemingly no other reason than the intersection of mental illness, substance abuse, and/or poverty. It is a place that throws into confusion many of my preconceived notions about what pastoral care and nonjudgmental listening are. It challenges me not to worry so much about meaning-making, and lean more upon listening and presence. Being there matters. And sometimes, being there doesn’t matter at all, because I am not as important as I think I am. I entered this internship with the approach that we all have things to learn from one another, and I have not been proven wrong.

Yesterday, I asked a client what he would do if he was president. He laughed and said, “I wouldn’t want the job!” Then thought a bit, and answered, “If I were president, I’d tax the rich and let the poor go free.” Later, when I asked his permission to tell another client about this idea, she responded, “That’s a bad idea. The rich would kick him out of office.”

An older client has been fixating on the idea that I will teach him piano. Ever since he learned that I know piano, his eyes get big as dinner plates when I walk onto the ward, and he wheels himself over to me, quickly and rapidly speaking about all that he knows about opera, Tosca, concertos, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Cash. He talks about how we can start a symphony, he and I, after I teach him piano. That we can play at the Fox Theatre. I nod and laugh and smile, and tell him to talk to his treatment team. He told me yesterday, that “You gotta have dreams. Otherwise, you sit around doing nothing.”

Another client told me that my sermon this Sunday was good. I asked her how it was good, and she said that her favorite part was about Jesus’ students asking Jesus, “Don’t you care about us?” She said it freed her to ask Jesus, “Don’t you care about me?” After all of the complex scholarship and thinking around liberation theology I learned in seminary and all the the social justice I try to work toward, this was the moment that it was most clear to me that I successfully created an opening for imagination around liberation to take place. The ability to demand of Jesus and God, “Don’t you care me?” freed this client to lament, to acknowledge injustice, to see that things are not all good and to hope in the midst of that. That is liberation.

It was a challenge to consider how to acknowledge and address the Charleston massacre, Pride month (especially with how clients and staff and grappling with homophobia and transphobia), grief experienced by the Psyc Center, and Father’s Day into one sermon, especially given the complex ethics and limitations of news access for clients with severe, long-term mental illness, who might perseverate (get stuck) as a result of traumatic news. This is what I came up with:

Mark 4:35-41

Jesus stops a storm

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to his students, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

After that story and after all the rain we’ve had, I’m really happy about the sunshine we’ve been having! Raise your hand if you’re with me—who’s glad that there’s been sunshine?

I don’t know about you, but the rain we had this month felt exhausting to me. It was so dreary, it made me want to stay in bed all day. Some days I didn’t even want to smile!

I think it’s because the weather feels different based on how we feel. On a good day, rain can seem like a pleasant surprise, happy drops going pitter-patter, or soothing noise lulling us to sleep. On a bad day, the sun can feel too harsh, like the sun is blinding us or teasing us with its cheery light.

With the losses we’ve experienced here at this Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center and in St. Louis, I’ve felt this rain as grieving rain, like the sky is crying with us.

As St. Louis and our nation is wrestling with racism and white supremacy, I’ve felt this rain as righteous cleansing rain, trying desperately to cleanse the sin and evil of racism in St. Louis and this nation.

When we are already discouraged, rain can be a reminder that things are not alright, that we are afraid that God is not there in the storms of suffering, death, and injustice.

Like Jesus’ students, we might cry out, “Don’t you care that we are going to drown and die?”

Mark writes that Jesus’ students complained like the songwriters of the Hebrew Bible, who cried out,

“How long O Lord?” “Where are you, God?” “Have you abandoned me, God?” “God, if you are so great, why is there suffering?” and finally, “God save me in my time of trouble!”

Raise your hand if you’ve asked these questions. I think many of us have.

In the storm, Mark writes that Jesus is sleeping on a pillow, without a care in the world. How do you think the disciples felt about that? What are some feeling words that describe how the disciples might have felt as they watched Jesus sleep in a storm that could drown them? Shout them out.

Confused? Angry? Resentful? Disappointed? Sad? Upset?

These are all words that describe how we feel when God seems to be missing, like God has fallen asleep and doesn’t care when we suffer, or whether we live or die.

But Jesus immediately wakes up and calms the storm, telling his students not to be afraid and to have faith. If Jesus is God, then Jesus’ actions show that God IS present in the storm and God does care when we suffer, or whether we live or die. By calming the storm BEFORE asking his students not to be afraid and to have faith, Jesus shows that God understands that we can be deeply afraid when things go wrong and that this fear can shake our faith. God understands that sometimes we need a miracle.

But Jesus’ command to not be afraid and to have faith also shows that when miracles are hard to find, we can choose to live in faith and not in fear.

Mark’s stories show that living in faith means following Jesus through stormy seas and windy lakes to tell the good news that God is in the world today, generously healing and loving everyone. Living in faith means listening to Jesus’ command to generously feed people with physical food and spiritual teachings about the goodness of God.

We might not be able to do God miracles of taming the winds and the waves, but we can do human miracles of generously healing, feeding, and loving all people. I know this, not just because Mark said that Jesus and his students healed, fed, and loved crowds of people, but because I see human miracles every day at this Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center.

Doctors, nurses, and psyc techs heal clients physically and mentally. Janitors keep the Center clean so that healing can take place. Social workers help to heal clients’ relationships with the community.

Cafeteria staff feed clients with food and staff of the client work program staff feed clients with productive activity.

Most of all, clients and staff love each other when we call each other by name. We love when we smile, say hi, and play games with each other. We love when we pray with each other and share kind words. We love when we meet our families and share memories at memorial services. We are generous when we invite others to sit at our table at the cafeteria, ask each other about how we are doing, and when we share stories with each other.

There are always storms that make us afraid and shake our faith. Storms like racism, budget cuts, program changes, homophobia and transphobia, peers who are hard to trust, behavior and diet restrictions, going to court, not being able to see your family, unwanted noises and smells… the list goes on. But in these storms, I see that you make miracles happen every day.

These miracles are God’s work, because they treat people like family, worthy of healing, feeding, and loving. God is described as both Father and Mother for treating people like family, so this Father’s Day, we remember all those who have been like a parent to others and perform everyday miracles. And we challenge ourselves to be parents and siblings to one another, so that we belong to one another as family.

Mark’s story teaches us that miracles don’t happen when we are too afraid to care for others. Miracles happen when we live in faith that God has not abandoned us and so we don’t abandon others. In faith, we can welcome others as our family. In faith, we may not be able to make every storm go away, but we can steer through choppy waters to reach the other side.

Because on the other side of every lake, like Jesus, we encounter not just one or two people, but CROWDS who need healing, feeding, and loving. It is up to us to welcome them into God’s family and say, “Rain or shine, welcome home.”

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