“God and ‘Unreality'”

Mark 6:1-6; 1 Cor. 13:4-13
Matt Goodale
November 7, 2021

There’s a man I used to know, whose name was Leon, or least that’s what I’ll call him. I was the chaplain assigned to Leon’s unit at the psychiatric hospital in downtown Trenton, New Jersey.

To be clear, this was not the “nice” type of psychiatric hospital, if that even exists. This was a place that is more prison than hospital; an institution that dehumanizes and humiliates more than it restores and rehabilitates, though it sure tries. It is a place where the sickest of the sick and the poorest of the poor are involuntarily locked up, often treated like mere bodies to be cordoned off into their own “nice little” corner of society where the rest of us don’t have to interact with them. And for some reason I decided I wanted to work there. So I was assigned to Leon’s unit.

Leon intrigued me. He intrigued me because he didn’t quite fit the mold of the other patients on the unit. Unlike the other patients, he wasn’t clinically depressed. He didn’t have active delusions of being an angel or a messiah. He wasn’t paranoid that the FBI was out to get him and he didn’t hallucinate that giant insects were lurking in the dark corners of a room.

Whenever I visited the unit, I usually found Leon in the same spot, just sitting. And I would sit with him.

Over the course of time he started sharing bits of his life with me. He seemed completely normal, and I wondered why he was there. But then I started to notice it. When talking about past experiences, he would refer to himself in the third person. He would say things like, “Leon learned how to play piano in third grade.” Or “Leon’s dad is dead now.”

I asked him why he referred to himself in the third person. I still remember his response: “Because Leon’s memories are not my memories. I’m not Leon.”

Obviously intrigued and perplexed I kept asking him questions, and eventually came to realize that Leon was living in the fixed delusion that his whole life was part of a virtual reality simulator, and that in “the real world” he was just a piece of brain and spinal cord, floating in a tank. The memories uploaded into his brain were not his own, but had belonged to someone by the name of Leon. Sure, he had those memories, but they were not his own. He didn’t know who he really was. And what was worse, he was stuck in a virtual reality simulator, where everyone else, including me, was not real—we were just part of the simulation.

And as I think back, it’s no wonder that he didn’t think anybody else at that hospital was real. Nobody treated him and his experience as real. Staff members and other patients mostly left him to his own. Doctors knew that he was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, and so they treated the illness with little regard for the man. He was a problem to be fixed.

Even I found myself more interested in the delusion, than in the experience of pain it surely covered up. I spent my first couple weeks trying to poke holes in his delusion, to help him see reality; I thought I knew what he needed, to be brought back to our reality. I didn’t realize that that isn’t what he needed – he didn’t need someone to bring him back to our reality; he needed someone to enter into his reality with him.

Our scripture text today from Mark tells us that “A prophet is not without honor, except in their own hometown.” Luke’s rendition of this story tells us that a “prophet is not welcome in their own hometown.” I find this to be a fascinating story. It is fascinating, because it is one of the few stories that appears in some form in every gospel. Mark’s version is the most fascinating, I think, because he bluntly tells us that “Jesus was unable to perform miracles.”

Just think about that for a second. Jesus, the son of God, who performs miracles everywhere he goes, is unable to perform a miracle here in Nazareth, his own hometown. His hometown homies are offended by him, because they think they know him: “he’s Joseph’s son isn’t he?? We know his siblings? Didn’t he used to run around here in diapers? Where did this man learn these things??” “We know him don’t we?” and they drive him out of town. “A prophet is not welcome in their own hometown.”

I think this is a very important story; a very important phrase. And of course, we can’t understand the gospel stories unless we enter them ourselves.

Think about it. We’re the people of Nazareth. We know who Jesus is, right? We know him. And so this story begs us to ask the question: How do we prevent miracles? Where do we drive Jesus out of town?

Small confession: I know I drove Jesus out of town in my early conversations with Leon, when he became a project to me, rather than a person. I drive Jesus out of town every time I pass someone on the side of the road who is asking for help, without even giving them a smile or a wave. I drive Jesus out of town every time I enter a conversation with a point to prove, assuming I already know better than the person I’m conversing with. I drive Jesus out of town.

How, perhaps, do you drive Jesus out of town? How do we prevent these miracles from happening? I want you to ask yourself those questions. And while you do, I’m going to tell you another story from my time at the psych hospital.

There was a patient named Lindsay (not her real name), who you would always find gently knocking and kicking at a door, repeating the same phrase over and over: “Let me out. My husband is stuck in paradise without me.” Any room she was in, she would always find the nearest door to go gently kick while repeating, “Let me out. My husband is stuck in paradise without me.”

On one particular day, the situation was worse than normal. She couldn’t be redirected. She had been at the same door for over 12 hours and wouldn’t stop kicking or repeating that same phrase. She hadn’t eaten or drunken anything in those 12 hours and was going to have to be taken to the hospital due to dehydration if she didn’t eat or drink something soon.

The doctors and unit staff had all gone and taken their turns at redirecting her, with no luck. So they asked me. “Might as well let the chaplain give it a shot before we take her to the hospital.” I didn’t know why I would have any more luck than a doctor, but the unit psychiatrist had asked me, so I figured I should go try.

Luckily, for Lindsay’s sake and mine, I had no idea what I was doing. So I just went and stood next to her by the door that she was kicking. I just stood there and stood there, probably for a good five minutes. It wasn’t that I thought I was being wise or anything – I just literally didn’t know what else to say or do. I was out of answers. I didn’t know what I was doing. So I just stood by her.

And after what felt to me like a very awkward and uncomfortable few minutes, Lindsay turned and acknowledged me. So I asked her, “What happened to your husband.”

“They took him from me. He’s gone.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that. I can imagine that’s painful.”

“Yes, it is.”

“You must be thirsty.”

“I am.”

“Here’s some water.” I handed her a cup of water that she downed in one gulp.

“You must be hungry too. I have a bowl of cereal on the table that you can eat.”

Without any response, Lindsay got up and went to eat the whole bowl of cereal, before returning to her door to start gently kicking it again.

I visited Lindsay more often after that day. I’d usually begin by just standing next to her for a couple minutes, letting her know that I was there, next to whatever door she was knocking at. I’d ask her about her husband. And gradually I saw a miracle happen.

You see, Lindsay used to be a high school science teacher. But some horrible childhood trauma and a drug addiction conspired to send her into a near catatonic state where she could no longer remember her past or anything about herself except that her husband was stuck in paradise without her.

But as I and another incredible staff member began to just sit or stand with her, without presuming to fix her or know anything about what she was going through, we watched her blossom.

First, we learned that she used to bake. She even recalled specific cakes she had made. But best of all, she remembered that she used to play the piano. So we’d take her to the only room in the hospital with a shabby old electric piano. And she would play it. Man, would she play it. This woman, who couldn’t recall who she was, could play the piano so beautifully. She didn’t need sheet music, she just played from memory.

Over the course of my time at the hospital Lindsay never stopped gently kicking on doors, worried sick about her husband stuck in paradise. But she did start to come a little more alive every time she played the piano or recalled one of her old cake recipes. And I got to watch this miracle unfold, not because I knew what I was doing, because I definitely still didn’t. But it was precisely because I didn’t know what I was doing. All I really did was leave a space for her to be heard.

I think this is where the people of Nazareth drove Jesus out of town. The people of Nazareth prevented miracles because they thought they knew. They didn’t realize that real miracles and real encounters with God only happen in those spaces of deep unknowing, at those times when we’re out of answers, in those relationships where we don’t presume to know how to fix someone. This is a story of deep unknowing.

The apostle Paul says that we only see things now as through a mirror dimly lit; he also says that knowledge will come to an end, but love endures forever.

Unknowing, whether in life or faith is of supreme importance. Whenever we approach a person or a situation with the delusion that we already know, then we drive Jesus out of town.

I’ve heard this Corinthians passage millions of times, often at weddings, but I don’t know if I’ve ever really noticed this line that Paul throws in: “Love believes all things.” This doesn’t mean that love is gullible, but that love leaves a space for believing everything.

If the person in front of us has schizophrenia or dementia, what might it look like for love to believe all things? What might it look like to leave a space and enter with them into the depths and dark of mystery, into that space where we admit that we maybe don’t know everything? What might it look like to believe that even if their delusion or hallucination isn’t real, that the pain, the fear, the frustration underneath is very real? For Lindsay, her delusion spoke to a deep existential fear of being alone. For Leon, his mind had separated his body from his past self, because the thought of living in a virtual reality simulator was an easier pill to swallow than to face his traumatic childhood and the memories of his dad killing himself.

Jennifer Metsker, an author, writes about her own experience with schizophrenia, through which she often has delusions of being an angel: “Whether we become angels or messiahs or aliens [in our delusions], it’s all in the interest of escaping something that seems even scarier—a life with an illness that makes it difficult to take part in the ordinary stories of the world.”

What if, instead of viewing mental health symptoms as aberrations, completely untethered to life and therefore worthless…what if instead mental health conditions are communications, telling us about someone’s lived experience? Our bodies and our souls cannot hide the sins committed against them. When we are so broken and nobody will listen, perhaps our illness is prophetic.

And what if, instead of viewing the person in front of me as broken, what if our society is actually what is broken? As a society we have been careless with the wounds of others. We try to hide these people in our prisons, our hospitals and alleyways, because we’re afraid of them and don’t know what to do with them. But what if we need them?

What if we need them so that we can learn what it means to enter that deep and dark space of mystery, where reality is not something we can control, but whatever reality we find ourselves in, we can only accept it and leave space for God’s Spirit to move and work in mysterious ways?

I learned way more from my patients than they ever probably learned from me. All I had to give them was the one thing we all have to offer: my presence. My unassuming, unknowing presence that left a space for them to finally be heard and believed. By leaving room for the possibility that God was doing something in that space and in the midst of their “unreality”, Jesus performed miracles. They weren’t flashy miracles; they won’t make headlines. But as I slowly became less concerned with the delusions on the surface, and more attuned to the pain and the person underneath, a space for healing was created, both for them and for me. I gave them my presence—it was all I had to offer; and they taught me what it means to be human.

And as I learned and matured at the psych hospital, Leon became a real person to me, rather than a project. And once again a miracle happened. I became real to him. Amen.f