Beth A. Faeth July 22, 2018
Scripture Luke 15:1–10
Panic. Fear. Desperation. . . . Girl Scout camp.
Not a typical combination. The year was 1980, and 12-year-old me was sporting a trendy new mullet and looking forward to my annual sojourn at Camp Evelyn, a Girl Scout camp not far from my home in Wisconsin. As older scouts, we were promised more adventure and activities, including a day-long canoe trip on a nearby river. On the day of the trip, I remember feeling confident as we loaded the canoes in the water and divided into threesomes. My family owned a canoe so, of course, I was an expert. The sun was shining.
Everything seemed perfect. Until it wasn’t. Our fleet of canoes set off for a day of paddling and exploration. My canoe mates and I were laughing at the struggles we had to find our rhythm, trying to figure out which of us was best in the front, middle and back. We didn’t notice we were falling behind until around lunchtime, it became apparent that not only were we the last canoe, we could no longer see any canoes ahead of us. I still remember the feeling that began gnawing in my stomach, the sensation that something wasn’t right, even though I couldn’t figure out what exactly had gone wrong. We just kept paddling. Suddenly we saw our counselor ahead in her canoe, and relief washed over me. All would be well. She also seemed relieved to finally see us, but her relief gave way to irritation as she rebuked us for being a full hour behind the lead canoe. We promised to do better as we continued on our way. We paddled and paddled, but soon we once again were alone on the river, our counselor no longer visible. We tried to bolster one another up but we were all so scared. We were lost. We were alone. And we had no idea how this day was going to end.
We just kept paddling. I really believed that with every twist and turn of the river we would see our friends, we would be found. But each time we rounded a bend we saw no one ahead of us, no one to rescue us. As darkness began to descend upon us, the gnawing anxiety in my stomach overwhelmed me. There were tears of panic and fear. I couldn’t name it then, but I know now that I believed I was going to die, that we were lost forever and we were destined to meet a terrible fate. Finally, in the distance up the riverbank, we saw a light. We prayed out loud that it might be attached to a house. We pulled our canoe out of the water, scaled the steep bank and made our way across a wooded field towards the light. When we realized it was indeed attached to a house, our new prayer became that someone would be home. I was elected spokesperson of the group: Imagine that. As we walked up the driveway, I can still recall the overall exhaustion I felt. We were dirty, wet, hungry and hurting. I can only imagine what the three of us looked like as a kind older couple opened the door to three shivering, grimy Girl Scouts. Choking back sobs of both relief and desperation, I tried to tell our story. The man called the camp, I overheard both the words lost and found, the dear couple gave us a ride to where everyone was waiting and there were more tears—this time of joy, as we were welcomed and hugged and dried off and fed. The same counselor who chided us earlier enveloped me in the biggest embrace, shedding her own tears of relief, apologizing for leaving us behind, soothing my very tender heart, whispering words of comfort and love. We had been found.
Two weeks in a dark cave cannot compare to one day on a fairly benign river. Like many of you, I have been compelled by the story of the Thai youth soccer team and their coach trapped in a cave after a routine day of practice followed by a typical team outing. Nothing became typical as the caves that they previously explored became deadly due to rainstorms and rising waters. With their bicycles parked outside the cave, the ultimate human scavenger hunt began. The world watched and waited with bated breath as the boys were discovered, plans to rescue them took days and the risky efforts began in earnest. It was one thing to find the team; a whole other intense situation to bring them to safety. We paused in sadness and grief as one diver lost his life in the effort, and suddenly the severity of the situation became very real. And as in our scripture reading this morning, when the last boy and their coach were brought from the caves all people everywhere rejoiced, a collective sigh of relief expelled in the conclusion of a harrowing rescue.
Except it isn’t really over. Just days ago, the boys and their coach were released from the hospital, all in good health. They sat for a press conference, smiling and joking about the experience. Their resiliency is amazing. They sustained themselves on water dripping from the roof of the cave and each other’s company, and even when hunger began to get the best of them, they continued to try and dig their way out, determined that their young lives would not end in the dark, dank caverns of rock. They paid tribute to their rescuers and offered silence and respect to the Navy Seal who died during the rescue when his oxygen ran out. Now released to their parents and families, these boys and their coach begin the hard work of moving forward from the trauma, away from the harshness of the television cameras to begin to reconcile this transformative experience of being lost and found.
I expect we all have our lost-and-found stories. What I realized in preparation for today, as I recounted over and over again in my head that experience at Girl Scout camp, was that I have never shared this story publicly before because it is an intensely personal experience of despair that continues to shape my fears today. My hands still sweat and my heart races when I remember the panic and desperation of my 12-year-old self, wrestling with questions of life and death that I did not yet have the language to articulate and process. My experience of being lost created a narrative in my life that I am still trying to understand. The familiar churning in my stomach and racing heart have returned when I became separated from one of my children in a store, or when I was dangerously close to running out of gas in the middle of nowhere, or when I was deep in the throes of grief and despair, believing that no one could understand the brokenness of my heart. We can be fully physically present, acclimated to time and place, and still be terrifically, painfully, hopelessly lost. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that every day I talk with someone who is living with depression, fighting suicidal thoughts, desperate for a sense of peace and belonging, or someone who loves someone who is and who doesn’t know how to help, how to save, how to rescue.
The two parables Jesus tells in our scripture lesson today are lost-and-found stories. For me, these have never been about sin and repentance as some might argue, but instead about the core understanding of one’s worth and the grace-filled possibilities of our sense of place. As the powers that be continually try to stymie Jesus’ ministry of inclusion, Jesus tells two preposterous stories as if they were societal norms: a shepherd abandons his flock of 99 sheep to find one that has strayed from the fold, and a woman turns her house upside down in order to locate a missing quarter. Jesus presents these scenarios as if the listeners would absolutely do the same, even though the world is made up of people trying hard to keep the other out. Both stories end with joy—the lost is found, and it is a call for celebration. The irony, of course, is that no one throws a block party with a silver dollar as the guest of honor, and shepherds are far too busy caring for their sheep to set out a welcome-home banquet for the one who got lost in the foothills. But in God’s realm, in God’s way, everyone is worthy of being found. God’s welcome is borderless. Every person—regardless of prior action, regardless of capability, regardless of the state of heart and soul—is a person worthy of place, worthy of love, worthy. It is easy to identify the shepherd and the woman as examples of God in these stories—and most of us do—but I think we must take these parables even more personally. We, God’s people, God’s beloved, are the shepherd and the woman . . . we are the ones to create place for others, to seek out the lost, lonely, hurting and afraid to remind them of God’s love for them, of our love for them. These are stories that emphasize the power of community—the need to rejoice as we create sanctuary for those longing to be found, and the resilience necessary to keep pressing on when words fail.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, nearly one in five adults in the United States—43.8 million people—experience mental illness in a given year, and over 20 percent of youth 13 to 18 will experience a severe mental trauma at some point during their lifetime. The church has been mostly silent regarding mental health. Slowly, this is beginning to change, but not quickly enough. One in five adults experiencing mental illness in a given year means this issue lives in the church, and it’s important to recognize how theological and ethical narratives shape the ways in which we create or don’t create access for mental health care for millions of people. Social structures like poverty, racism, sexism and violence can enhance or diminish health, just as biological or genetic factors can. Writes Kathryn Ott, Assistant Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School: “The response to mental health issues should be equally diversified in terms of advocating for social justice, individual health care access, communal support, research and education. Churches need to make the shift away from stigmatizing mental health as a moral failing or result of personal sin and instead promote theologies and provide resources that support and sustain those with mental health issues and their families.”
Dear Evan Hansen, a 2017 Tony Award–winning musical, is a show about teens who struggle with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and has fueled a heartrending conversation about mental health that has only grown more relevant. The show’s music, written by the Oscar-winning duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, combined with a sensitively handled storyline about how mental illness affects teens and their families in a world made more complicated by social media, gives the production relevancy and also becomes an invitation to community. Evan Hansen is a high school senior with severe social anxiety, which inhibits his ability to connect to others and make friends. After the death of one of his classmates by suicide, Evan fabricates a lie that inadvertently brings him closer to the classmate’s family, while also allowing him to gain his own sense of purpose. The actors in the show have received thousands of letters and emails, and YouTube is filled with testimonials about how the show has changed lives and opened doors of critical communication. “Dear Evan Hansen, thank you for saving my life,” one person wrote to the cast. “I woke up two days ago wanting to do something really stupid. I’ve never felt so understood and cared for.” “I brought our 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son to the show. Their older sister died by suicide a little over a year ago,” another person wrote. “We are still devastated, but it helps us when people talk about mental illness with understanding and compassion.” In the show-stopping musical number that closes the first act, Evan is tentatively giving a speech which ends up going viral on social media and catapults Evan into a realm of new found relationship and understanding. But the song is not about Evan; it is sung for the millions of people struggling to find hope within the crushing realities of their illness. In the show and in real life people resonate with the message:
Even when the dark comes crashing through,
When you need a friend to carry you,
And when you’re broken on the ground,
You will be found.
Those simple words—“you will be found,” along with “you are not alone”—are sung over and over like a mantra. While I have not seen the show (even though my daughters and I have memorized the soundtrack), I understand why it is impossible to not dissolve into tears as suddenly, collectively, the audience believes what is heard. Everyone shares that emotional experience—the realization of connection over isolation, community formed under the umbrella of support and love. Because one knows one has place. And purpose. And meaning. You will be found.
I cannot imagine feeling the way I did in that canoe decades ago all the time. Yet I know that those feelings of panic and desperation, fear and despair are what millions of people feel every day. It is time for the church to lift the stigma from mental illness and instead proclaim that we are a found community. That here is place. That here there is invitation to authenticity, whatever that looks like. We must do more to care for those struggling and suffering to find meaning, to know hope, to trust love. What does that look like at Plymouth Church? Shall we create support groups? Become more involved with our beloved Drop-in community? Build our cadre of resources and referrals to mental health agencies—those that can make a real difference? Are you willing to sit with another who cannot even find the words to describe the despair, but in desperation comes to church anyway, hoping somehow, someway, something will be said that will mend a shattered spirit? I want to hear from you on how Plymouth can become a beacon of awareness while providing the comfort and care necessary so that those feeling lost will know grace. Will know place. We are called to practice the kindness that Naomi Shihab Nye describes in her poem “Kindness” read earlier in the service. Written while lost and desperate herself after being robbed of everything on her honeymoon, Naomi illuminates the true essence that can pull a person out of darkness—it is to sit in the darkness, too, and acknowledge the mysterious sorrow that beckons one into a place of despair. It is to keep showing up even when you do not know what to say or what could possibly make a difference. Show up anyway. When we reach out from empathy rather than from a need to rescue, the “tender gravity of kindness” can be the saving grace that creates the possibility of healing. This is the community I dream of with all of you . . . one I know Plymouth can be.
To those struggling this day, praying your heart would beat at a normal pace and the self loathing and despair would melt away, the anxiety would diminish and the depression fade . . . I care. We care. You are not alone. You are brave and courageous to keep paddling. You have a place here, a sacred spot created just for you. And the collective we will keep reminding you that you are loved, you are cherished, you have purpose. We need you. Because without you, we are not whole.
You will be found.
Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, “The Silent Stigma of Mental Illness in the Church,” Sojourners, May 10, 2017, https://sojo.net/articles/silent-stigma-mental-illness-church (accessed July 23, 2018).
Katie Reilly, “‘There Are a Lot of People in Distress.’ Dear Evan Hansen Creators and Experts on a Youth Mental Health Crisis,” Time.com, May 11, 2018, http://time.com/5272063/dear-evan-hansen-mental-health-roundtable/ (accessed July 23, 2018).