They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.
The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.
I suppose I should start with a disclaimer. I don’t believe in demons, and I don’t believe in demon-possession. That is not to say I haven’t encountered evil. I have. Most of us have. There are many evils in our world, from racism to misogyny to hatred and violence and the list could go on. Evil’s name might indeed be Legion, for it is many.
But today I want us to look at this story as a metaphor. During this Lenten season our theme, Holy Vessels, has invited us to look at different areas of health or wholeness. So far we have considered physical and economic health and wholeness. Today we consider mental health and wholeness. So let’s look at this biblical story again through that lens.
Let’s say that this man is not possessed by demons, or by unclean spirits as some translations state it,but instead is in the grasp of a fierce mental illness. It has taken control of his life and his identity. He bears little resemblance to the person he once was. People can only interact with his illness rather than with him. He cannot relate to others or himself in a healthy manner. He is self-destructive; he is dangerous. This parallel fits, certainly. Those of us who have known—and especially known and loved—people with difficult diagnoses can see the parallels. But I really hesitated to make this parallel because that’s what many of us expect to see when I use the phrase “mental illness.” We think of mental illness in its most difficult manifestations, which conveniently allows us to miss the manifestations that we’re more likely to experience.
There is so much stigma around mental health in our society. The brain is an organ, and when it malfunctions in one way, we consider it a medical problem, and when it malfunctions in a different way, we start placing blame. They didn’t work hard enough; they didn’t pray hard enough; they should shake it off; mind over matter; stop being so weak. Depression isn’t weakness. Anxiety isn’t a lack of faith. Many of us—most of us, if we’re honest—have experienced it.
For me it was 2006. I had taken my first solo pastorate in 2005, and my first year was difficult. I missed the community in Asheville that had surrounded me as an associate. I missed the place and the people and the belonging. Then my dear friend Bob, back in Asheville, was diagnosed with cancer and died a week later. He was 69. Two months later, a key leader of my new church, and the one who always had my back, died in his sleep at age 62. The losses piled on me, and I lost my center and my grounding. My marriage was disintegrating. Every step took effort, like my feet were in sludge. I made some bad choices. I got stuck in that space where I didn’t really want to die, but I didn’t feel a reason to live, either. I wish I could say God came to me and healed my depression. I wish I could say that my faith saw me through. I wish I could say that I picked myself up, gave myself a stern talking-to, and got back on the road to recovery.
But that’s not how it happened. I got better through a combination of therapy, medication, honesty, and time. I began to learn the value of speaking my truth to a trusted companion, even if it was a truth I myself didn’t want to hear. I learned the value of being honest about my feelings. I learned the power of telling my story.
I share all this with you in case you are under the impression that Christians shouldn’t experience depression, or that strong people can beat it on their own, or that something is wrong with you if you’re depressed. I want you to know it’s okay to admit how you’re feeling, and it’s okay to admit that you need help.
We need to overcome the stigma. I was in a conversation with someone recently who was expressing deep concern over the rate of suicide in a particular demographic. I said something about mental illness, and she said, “They’re not mentally ill! They’re depressed!” I didn’t mean to offend her, of course, but to her, my use of the words “mental illness” was shaming. I should have said medical illness, because for some reason we think it’s okay to be medically ill but not when the illness takes the form of depression. It’s the same body. And all areas of our body can be in need of healing. And we need to attend to our mental health as much as other areas, maybe even more.
We have been through a year like no other. Those who are already susceptible to depression have been hit hard, but so have people who’ve never experienced it before. I am not a doctor or a psychiatrist or a counselor, and it would be inappropriate for me to try to diagnose anyone or tell you whether what you’re feeling is sadness or depression. I just want you to hear that you’re not alone. And I want you to know that it’s okay to look for help. In fact, asking for help is a sign of strength.
Let’s look again at our Bible story for today. After the demons were cast out, the man was seen again “in his right mind.” Now remember, I am not saying mental illness is demon possession; we’re using this as a metaphor. But I wonder what it means to us to be in our “right mind.” I think it means to be our best self, to fully embody who we were meant to be, without fear or shame. Are you there? If not, can you remember the last time you were? What would it take to get you back to that place of rightness, of wholeness? It’s not too late. Okay, it might be too late to embody your dream of being an Olympic gymnast. And the ship may have sailed on some career goals. But it is not too late for you to become your best self, your true self, to live fully and freely in the light of God’s love. For that it is never too late.
There is one more piece of this biblical story I want to apply to us today. When the man is healed, he asks Jesus if he can follow him—if he can travel with them and become a disciple. Jesus says no—not because that man isn’t worthy, but because the man has a different calling. “Go home to your friends and family and tell them what the Lord has done for you.” The same commandment is for us. Go and tell. Go and tell your story.
In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Lissa Rankin writes, “When we tell our stories and others bear witness, the notion that we are disconnected beings suffering alone dissolves under the weight of evidence that this whole concept is merely an illusion and that millions of others are suffering just like us. . . .The minute you discover that someone else is suffering just like you—or even better, that they’re celebrating their wholeness just like you—that sense of disconnection eases and you start to glimpse the truth—that we are beings of vibrating energy, connected on the energy internet through processes like quantum entanglement, with overlapping consciousness that connects us to a divine Source and to the Inner Pilot Light of every being on this planet.”
So go and tell the story of your despair and how you survived. Go and tell the story of your challenges and how you thrived. Go and tell the story of that hole you thought you’d never climb out of, and how somebody lowered for you a ladder. Go and tell the story of risks taken and grief lived and mercy given. Go and tell of how you sang your truth from the depths of your soul, and how you were healed in the community of God’s grace.
 Rankin, Lissa. The Healing Power of Telling Your Story. Psychology Today. November 27, 2012.