I was presented with quite a dilemma regarding what I might say today. Today is Father’s Day, a frivolous concept invented to sell cards but I guess also in this age it allows men not to be discriminated against by having something to match Mother’s Day, which of course isn’t Mother’s Day at all but Mothering Sunday and we don’t need to be female to mother people, but there we go, it’s Father’s Day. So should I be light-hearted and talk about the wonder of Fathers? Well I didn’t anticipate a church full of children. Then I looked back at the reading – it’s a harrowing tale, so should I speak about that, and then we had the tragedy of Wednesday. Well there just isn’t room for a lot of time spent on all 3, so I shall make passing reference to one, look at the other in the prayers and mainly stick to the subject of the reading here.
My father worked from 6 in the morning until 10 or 11pm 5 days a week and until lunchtime on Saturday and slept most of Saturday afternoon and Sunday. Until I was 8 I really knew very little about him. For the week before Christmas he often never came home at all for several days. But he was working to keep the family together, to pay the mortgage, to buy the car and so on. It’s not a universally male trait – my daughter does the work and my son-in-law stays at home with the children, one of my sons and his wife both work part-time but many, many men work in stressful situations and away from home. I know this only too well with my father and with my own life for many years so traditionally it has been men that have carried the stress of work, but of course just like Mothering, that isn’t now universally true, we all Mother and we all Father. If mothering is caring then fathering I suggest is providing.
To provide, our system tells us we must all be great academics and it’s therefore not surprising that our children are suffering huge stress from sitting SATs tests and the stress to get straight A’s grows year on year. It isn’t totally new, I remember the dread of sitting my 11+ and the worry that if I didn’t pass I would end up at a school which was known for bullying and being generally unpleasant and the outcome for those boys was bleak especially as the heavy industry which had taken them as apprentices for so many years had all but disappeared.
Stress of course leads to all sorts of issues one of which is poor mental health. But stress is not the only cause. I had an aunt who had electric shock therapy many years ago because she was depressed. She had lived at home all of her life and when her parents died she and her brother lived together all of their lives and she never had to earn a penny. But she was blighted with depression.
Of course in the old days anyone who failed to conform was shipped off to the local special hospital. Ours was a place called Rauceby near Sleaford. I had an uncle who was a warder there, he lived in a house belonging to the hospital and grew amazing dahlias and chrysanthemums. My maternal grandmother lived in dread that she would end her days there because she was what was referred to as “fragile” and had a sister already there. We used to go to pick aunt up on Christmas Day and I well remember my dad asking an “inmate” if the clock was right to which came back the reply “well if it is, it’s the only thing in here that is”. But I suspect it wasn’t; there were I think many people who lived there who had difficult times in their lives but who were utterly sane, they just had periods when everything closed in on them.
I have documented my struggles in the magazines a few months ago. It is clear I am prone to depression, it must be a chemical imbalance I have for which treatment is available if and when I need it, just like the pain of arthritis is treated with a tablet. But society unfortunately sees my small pill differently to that of the arthritis sufferer. They are to be pitied, I don’t mean in a “there – there” sense, but in a “what jolly bad luck” sense. But my illness has in general been treated as “why doesn’t he or she pull themselves together – we all go through bad patches”, or someone might say “there’s something a bit odd about him or her” and then they ascribe all sorts of other issues to people where none exits – people with mental illnesses are to be kept at arm’s length lest they should hurt or infect the rest of us. Yes I know there are some people who fall into that category and who need to be segregated but equally there are some plain evil killers out there who never had a day’s mental illness in their lives. Equally there are some quite brilliant people who suffer from mental illness, what is it they say about genius and madness being closely related?
I have been very fortunate. The twice in my life when I have felt really rubbish, and I mean really rubbish, have in the long run turned out to be life-changing moments in a very good sense.
But enough of me for now – the gospel story is one we know but which only crops up once every three years and if it is on Father’s Day it is often ignored completely as being too morbid. Most of the people Jesus cures have sick bodies, not sick minds so this is quite a harrowing and unusual story. The man has clearly been very badly affected by something for many years. He presumably lived locally, and if there had been a bus service, he would no doubt have been the person you would have dreaded getting on next to you – he didn’t dress well, if at all, he lived in a cave and no doubt was a bit smelly and his appearance would have been quite unusual, wild hair no doubt and a long beard. We don’t know if that was his choice or whether he had been pushed out but I suspect that may have been the case as he thinks Jesus is just there to torment him too. But of course Jesus knows that this man is worth saving just like everyone else, and I suspect he had quite a lot to offer to the others in the locality about how to survive in the wilderness.
Jesus then does something that no pill can do – he completely removes the illness and frees the man from it, although I’m guessing the swineherd were none too happy especially if they now had to go back to their boss and tell them his valuable herd of pigs was now at the bottom of the lake.
The telling thing is what happens next. The people are even more fearful of Jesus’ power and ask him to leave – why – did they like having a local nutter to blame things on and to make them feel better about themselves, and the second issue is that the man, now cured wants to stay with Jesus, not a ridiculous thought, considering Jesus is the only person who has actually done anything to help him – I suspect he felt safe in Jesus’ company and I suspect he still feared a relapse and wanted Jesus nearby to cure him again if it all went pear shaped.
Jesus does two things in return – he gets into a boat and leaves not wanting to stay where he isn’t wanted amongst those who really are the ones with the problem – the ones who can’t accept the situation, and he makes the man stay to be a daily reminder to the people of what has happened to him now, and I suspect as a prickling conscience to his neighbours who had rejected him when his need was greatest. And so the man stayed and shouted about what Jesus had done for him. We don’t know if he was accepted back into society but I imagine he had a much better life than he had before and that he may have ever had if he was just as ordinary as everyone else.
The story seems to be very simple and I would hope we all feel sympathy for the man’s previous life and joy at his new life, but if that is the case – why is mental illness still such a stigma. For the vast majority of sufferers the only person they are likely to harm is themselves. Are we frightened, are we embarrassed because they might do something strange, or is it we just don’t know how it feels and we are embarrassed. If someone has a cold we can say, “oh tell me about it, I was up for a whole week because all I did was cough all night, drove everyone else crazy” – interesting choice of words – yet if you don’t know what it is to feel depressed then you can’t imagine it.
I said earlier that I have come out of my depression having gained. On the very day of 9/11, I plunged into an abyss and it was as if my memory card had been wiped, names, faces, simple jobs I had been left to do in the daytime forgotten, yet two things happened – one I was able to dig the holes all around (Hale) this church to see why half of it was making its way down the hill, and two, Tim Daykin suggested I should be a Reader. Now I thought he was the one who had lost it at the time but he saw something in my vulnerability, in my weakness, in my distress which he thought God could take and use.
My second brush with depression was just last summer. I saw it coming this time so I knew what to do and I took two weeks off work with my doctor’s agreement followed by a course of tablets which have somehow improved the chemical balance. Bishop Jonathan heard I wasn’t well and he turned up on the doorstep, he was the one who persuaded me to take the medication and then he reaffirmed my thoughts about looking at non-stipendiary ministry, but more than that, and I referred to it in the magazines, I went to one of the schools in Salisbury in March to do some mock interviews. I do it once a year. My colleagues all knew why I’d been off because I’d told them – I wanted it in the open, I wanted anyone who was worried to be able to ask me questions, and one of those colleagues is married to the person who organises the mock interviews at that school. Clearly they had one young lady they were worried about paring up with an interviewer and so a discussion happened at home, the content of which I don’t know, but that morning the wife of my colleague came to me and said “if you have any issues with your last interviewee just let me know” – that’s all she said. Well I met interviewees one, two and three and in some trepidation number 4. Immediately she was different – she didn’t conform to the dress code of the girls in the 6th form at that school, she was what you might call edgy, a bit punk, if you remember punk, but at the same time smart and of perfectly acceptable appearance, but she didn’t quite conform. Well I looked at her and I looked down at me and I looked round the room which was full of business suits, women as well as men, all dark, all crisp and then I looked at me again, bright blue trousers, suede boots with green soles and laces, and I thought, a ha!
So we started to chat as I had done with the others and then she said right out of the blue “if I had done a really good interview and then told you I have to spend two weeks in a secure institution next week and the week after, would you still employ me?” Big Ben chimed above me and I realised why we had been put together. So what should I do – offer her some platitudinous nonsense and get out or open up?
I decided on the latter and I told her some of my own story. When we had to stop I said to her, “look I might be an old fart as far as you are concerned but if you ever want a chat, let me know.” As yet she hasn’t called, but some days later my colleague came up to me and said – “what did you say to her”, they say she is a different person – yes she is still a girl with depression, but somehow she is shining through it, and I said, “well, as I remember all I said was, of course I’d employ you because you know what it is to deal with this stuff and I know it will have taught you tolerance and all sorts of other stuff.” Maybe I said it because I saw me in her and her in me. She is of course just like the man still in his village, she is still in the school community and it is my hope they learn from her.
Adversity is hard, we often wish we didn’t have to go there but we can learn from it and it is my belief Jesus takes our weakness and uses it for good. And there can be no shame in that can there? Amen.