Jesus Be a Psychiatrist: A Homily
To begin, I need to confess that I didn’t grow up all that involved in the faith that had been given to me as an infant. I was baptized, but for a variety of reasons we never really did much with it. I share that to say this: I didn’t grow up thinking that God and modern medicine were opposed in any way. I was not taught to be suspicious of doctors or pills or anything of the sort. Quite the opposite, really. It wasn’t until I was older, in my 20s, that I started taking my faith seriously and began to ponder this question about the relationship between faith and medicine.
If I pray, am I affecting a medical outcome? What does it mean to pray for healing? What about my mental health? If I have Bipolar 2 (which I do), am I possessed by some demon? Some days feel like that. Should I also be seeking the help of an exorcist alongside the help of a psychiatrist? So many questions. I have also worked in the hospital and hospice setting as a chaplain. What is that work all about if prayer isn’t curative?
Recently, I started a new position. Because of the healthcare system in the U.S., this new job meant I needed to switch insurance providers and pharmacists. I take several medications for chronic mental illness. Running out would be a very bad thing. I endeavoured to make sure I did not run out during this transition. As fate or providence or inadequate health care would have it, I did run out. I ended up spending a month without my medication. Suddenly, the mental health I had been enjoying had been shattered. I was manic and insomniac.
I didn’t pray for healing. I knew where healing would come. Instead, I asked for God to sustain me in the midst of the madness. I asked God to stay with me. I didn’t ask for
promises. I didn’t ask for relief. And yet this old chestnut kept popping up in my head.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff comfort me.
Psalm 23 from the Coverdale Psalter found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer . . . I’ve sung it a thousand times and it’s the version I find myself praying when times get tough. It is God’s comforting staff.
For so long, I feared my mental illness. “My brain wants me dead,” I would say. But this time I could simply say, “I’m sick and I need medicine.” Healing. Wholeness. Peace.
This came in the form of my therapist keeping me grounded while I flailed around in my manic state. It came in the form of the various skills I have learned (mindfulness, meditation, etc.) over the years. I nagged my new pharmacist. I nagged my psychiatrist. Daily, I called and prodded. “Someone please do something here!”
I have enjoyed good mental health for the past few years. It’s gone so well that I recently asked my psychiatrist if I should begin to titrate off of my medication. “No. Let’s not fuck with fine,” he said. Strong words, but they proved to be almost prophetic as I struggled to find my footing without my meds. With the assistance of a broken medical system, I had fucked around and found out.
The disappointment and shame I felt was overwhelming. How am I supposed to parent with a brain like this? How am I supposed to be a good spouse? And let’s not forget that I am required to make a living somehow. Late capitalism in the U.S. is voracious and expects sacrifice. There is an almost ritualistic quality to its demanding rhythm. To survive one must produce and consume. Produce. Consume. Ad nauseam.
The LORD is my shepherd
therefore can I lack nothing.
How am I supposed to hear this promise? Is this a panacea against the ills of corrupt economics? Perhaps. Again, the psalm would not let me go. Faith has its own call, its own demands, that are often contrary to our lived reality. The psalm takes an almost revolutionary tone.
Thou shalt prepare a table before me
in the presence of them that trouble me.
I appreciate the language here. It’s not “enemies” but “them that trouble me.” These are troublesome adversaries. One need not look for malice. One need not go that far. And the troubles, they come.
No one was out to get me. This turn of events was a systemic failure, the fruit of greed and false compromises to be certain, but not a malicious attack. Trouble, indeed. There was no one person to blame. There was no one at fault. And that reality proved more troubling to me than if someone had been trying to hurt me.
Systems have an ephemeral quality to them. Once they begin to work against you, they can be hard to shut down as there is often no one person to contend with. So, this promise of God’s to prepare a table before me in the presence of them that trouble me is even more surprising. In the face of all manner of systemic trouble, God promises a table.
God promises to sustain us. That theme is constant. The covenant here is the covenant that God has made with all creation. If you wish to seek God’s presence in a time of trouble, one only need to seek from where sustenance comes.
Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy
shall follow me all the days of my life;
We must look for loving-kindness. That is where God is. Even in the midst of trouble, there is loving-kindness to be found. For me, it was the kindness of a supervisor who covered for me when I needed to take time off. It was the support of family and friends whose righteous indignation gave voice to my own, who gave me permission to cry out, “No!” and “Help!” It was in the invitation to write.
So, back to all the questions at the beginning of this missive . . . I don’t really have answers to them. But I am beginning to see a promise, a theme, emerging where God sustains. God sustains as Godself and through those I am in community with . . . “and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
Tripp Hudgins (he/him) is a former Baptist minister living life as an Episcopal layperson in Richmond, Virginia, with his wife and son.