The Elephant in the Room
Updated: Oct 24, 2021
Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly.
Plz be seated
I’m very happy to be here with St. George’s; it has been such a treat to be your new Young Adult Missioner and to get to know this town over the last few months among the multiple fabulous communities I get to serve. I’ve worked in churches before, but never three at the same time and three times the churches means three times the people, three times the quirks, and three times the activity.
One of the neat opportunities I’ve had with St. George’s so far was a mental health first aid training organized by the office staff for members of the St. George’s community who wanted to learn how to better respond to and support people who are struggling in acute or sustained ways with their mental wellness.
If you can believe it, training for the priesthood (at least for me) included no formal training on mental health matters, so I was eager for the opportunity to participate in this training and also to spend a little bit of time with my new colleagues and members of this community.
The training defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their own community,” and they list among the the challenges to mental wellness, things like traumatic events, financial hardship, discrimination, stresses from work or home or community life. If this was the definition of mental wellness, I wonder just how many people aren't struggling right now. Even if you are a person who can usually cope with the normal stresses of life, how do we account for the exceptional stresses of the past year and of the present moment? Even if many of us are able to function at work or in school, how many would describe that work as productive or fruitful? Or how many folks have enough gas left in the tank at the end of the day or the week to "realize their own abilities" or to contribute to their communities in the way they want to,,, all this without even accounting for the people who are simply, deeply very burned out.
It feels like the elephant in the room pretty much everywhere. We are okay. We are holding up. But individually and collectively, people are struggling and we're just not talking about.
Another part of the training rehearsed a check-in conversation between two individuals, one asks the other "Is everything alright?" and the man replies:
Everything will be alright. I have been dealing with a few things, but I will get over it.
And I had to laugh because it sounds like every glancing "hey, how are you?" I've exchanged over the last eighteen months. I just want to know--why do we play this elephant in the room game.
What is it about this incessant coverup that feels so correct and appropriate: I’m fine. I’m fine. Things are happening but I’ll get through it, don’t worry about it. How are you doing, oh do you want the short answer or the real answer, haha, no really I’m fine.
Why is it that we do this? Is it too embarrassing to have problems? Do we feel like we’re the only ones who are doing poorly? Do we feel like everybody else is managing this pandemic better than we are so we’d better just grin and bear it? Is it because we’ve learned that “high maintenance” really just means “having needs” or “needing help” and that it is to be avoided at all costs? Or have we built institutions for ourselves—communities—that are so packed tight with work to be done, agendas to be facilitated, projects to be upkept that we simply do not have the time to feel how we are feeling, the time to ask one another in earnest if they are alright? Do we think that we do not have the bandwidth for the real answers?
This morning we read the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar who is caught up in the whirlwind of a crowd crowding Jesus. He realizes that it's Jesus that the people are gathering to see and he starts calling out to him, and the crowds are put out by his... zeal,,, or perhaps his desperation.
The passage says Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, and I have to laugh imagining how this story might play out if it were today.
Can you imagine if Jesus approached one of us: “Call them here, what do you want me to do for you?” “Oh I’m fine, really. Just got some stuff going on, but I’m hanging in there haha. Jesus how are YOU doing, tho? Having fun with the new ministry? Seems like its going well :)”
Can you imagine what it would have been like if Bartimaeus had succumbed to the pressure of the crowd who sternly ordered him to be quiet? Bartimaeus, shut up — quit being so loud, so high maintenance.
Can you imagine if the social pressures we felt today seasoned these Gospel narratives; if the woman at the well had heard one too many times that she was too disruptive, and didn’t get into her debate with Jesus over what he meant about the living water; if when Jesus spit in the mud, the blind man recoiled and said, hey there buddy, I've got a doctor's appointment next week, don't worry about it, no really, I don't want to make a big fuss, yes I'm sure; if the paralytic man had told his friends, no it’s gonna be too cringey if you lower me through the roof on that mat, it'll make a scene; or if he had been lowered in and Jesus had said “This is so important but I’m a little busy here,,, we’ve got this adult formation class going on but why don’t you send an email to my office and we’ll set up a time for you to come back next week (!!),, I've got my messiahs conference on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday but maybe we could meet on Thursday?"
Perhaps you think I’m being hyperbolic here, but I wonder how I might react if a Bartimaeus made himself know in the middle of this sermon even, if I might hope that a couple folks would gently usher him to the narthex, calm him down so that we might proceed, catch up with him later after all the services have been completed.
There is a tension in our lives--maybe specifically in our lives as Christians--between following through on the responsibilities we hold and the calendars we keep--and attending to our feelings, our needs, our calls to minister as they arise in real time. We are so well-trained to think that train must keep moving full steam ahead, even if our bodies are on the tracks, even if where it's headed isn't where we need to be going anymore.
Bartimaeus is a poignant foil for a people like us Episcopalians, because he has needs, he cannot hide them and he does not want to. As Episcopalians, we tend to have our material needs taken care of, we tend to prioritize decorum and propriety, we tend to have a great many responsibilities that we cannot easily lay down. Bartimaeus shows us that sometimes the most faithful thing you can do is to make a scene, to name your needs loudly, to claim your space even if it's an imposition to those around you. The reaction of the crowd, delayed though it was, shows us that it can be the most faithful thing to be willing to be disrupted, to make space--to clear a path--for the person in the room who is the most hurting. And Jesus shows us that we have a God who is ready to disrupt and to be disrupted with our problems, our hurts, our longings.
We are privileged as The Church in a season like this. In so many areas of our lives, the question is how do we get this train back on the tracks--how can we return to normal, how do we keep the kids on pace with their curriculum, how do we reopen the economy? how do we stop being disrupted. As the Church, we do not have production quotas or end-of-semester exams or standardized tests--the train that we must keep on the tracks is to be faithful and to do ministry, and so long as we are doing that, we are doing our jobs. I do not have the clearance to absolve you of your responsibilities out in the world, though I would if I could. But here in the Church, we have an incredible leeway, not simply to maneuver around the elephant in the room but to turn our attentions towards the elephant and ask "What do we do about this? What do we do about this trauma? About this burnout? What do we do about these financial hardships, this isolation, this discrimination that our communities are facing?" If what it means to be a Christian is to try and be like Jesus, then responding to the hurt in front of us is how to be faithful. Responding to the hurt in front of us and naming the hurt that is within us is how to be faithful.
- How are you struggling these days? What would it take for you to name it?
- What do you wish you could set down?
- Who do you see in your circle, your community who's struggling? What can you do to make a little more space for them in their hurt, what can you do to respond to their needs?
- How is God calling this community to minister, right now, right here, in light of these elephants in the room? What might we need to set down in order to give them our fuller attention?
I wish that things felt more normal, I wish we were back under normal stresses in precedented times and I wonder if you, like me, are simply fatigued of talking about how things are 'hard'. But it's where we find ourselves to be right now and I think we've got a little ways longer to go. In the meantime though, I hope you hear from this story that you are not the only one struggling right now, and that we have a savior who's MO it is to disrupt and to be disrupted, to look and listen for where the pain is and to make enough space as is needed to attend to it, and thank God for that.