Dating update for all you kind enough to ask: I’ve had my first, awkward, anxiety-filled date. It was not a match. The second “opportunity” is this week!
Today I went to a place called BridgeHouse. It is a critical care unit for adults who require acute psychiatric care. When I arrived I pushed a button near a sign that read, “This is a secure facility. Individuals must be checked in before entering.” After I entered the front door I was instructed to place my purse and any sharp objects as well as my cell phone into a locker outside of the common area, and then someone behind a screened window “buzzed” me in. I was visiting a friend, recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. While I waited for him to come into the common area I sat on a couch across from another woman. This woman tilted her head down to one side while she was mumbling some words to herself. Occasionally her eyes flitted upward and briefly made contact with mine.
I have not had a lot of experience caring for someone who is “acutely” mentally ill, but I saw something familiar in that woman’s eyes. I think I saw a terror that I have felt in moments when I’ve seen how treacherous it can be to live in a world where betrayal might be behind the next corner and where what is unseen feels so much more real than anything that I can see. I sensed a familiar shame that I have also felt when my world has crumbled and I haven’t responded in “sane” ways. And I saw a mixture of emotions I recognized as anger and relief at being locked up - a reality that can be reassuring (“I can’t hurt myself or others any more); and a reality that can be so demoralizing (“I really am not like other people.”).
After a few moments of waiting and pondering my own experiences spent in the rooms of crazy confinement, the woman seated across from me looked straight at me and asked, “What are you looking at?” Her question startled me, and I didn’t know what to say so I quickly answered, ”Oh, I’m not looking at anything. I’m just waiting for a friend,” and I stood up and moved to a different part of the room. The encounter reminded me of a story I had just read last week in The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen.
He tells the story of a dangerous fugitive who sought a hiding place in the middle of a small village. The villagers were terrified when they learned that a fugitive was in their midst. The authorities promised to search high and low until they apprehended the fugitive. Little did they know that the fugitive was actually hiding in a small church in the center of town. When the priest learned that the authorities were diligently searching for the fugitive, he didn’t know what to do. He had offered the church as a resting place for the fugitive — a safe haven until he could figure out where to go next. But when the priest learned of his crimes and heard the fear of the people, he earnestly searched through all of his books for the right answer. During his research he came across this advice, “It is better that one man be sacrified, so that many may be free,” and concluded that the right thing to do would be to sacrifice the fugitive for the safety of the villagers. He turned the dangerous man over to the authorities to be locked up.
But his spirit was grieved. He was filled with turmoil about his actions. It was during this time that an angel appeared to the priest. He asked the angel, “Why do I feel so grieved when I have clearly done the right thing?” The angel answered, “If you would have looked into the eyes of the fugitive instead of looking for the right answer, you would have seen that he was the Messiah come to save you all.”
I think I’ve been every character (except the angel) in this story. I’ve been the villagers — terrified by friends and family members who seem dangerous to me — dangerous in their addictions, sins, and humanness. I have believed with all my heart that only the law could save them. When we look at the lies, drunkennes, gossip, anger, and failures of others we will want the law — something to assure us that they can be controlled and never hurt themselves or others again.
I’ve been the priest — called upon by others to find the right thing to do. I can remember in my early days of counseling that I would buy a dozen books a week, hoping to find the right answers to my clients’ maladies. When we look for answers we will also want the law or at least something that promises control. The truth is we’ve been lied to about the law. It’s not the answer. It actually gets between us and the Answer.
And I have been the fugitive — hiding out from others, certain that my sins have finally condemned me. Although I may argue and defend against accusations that I am dangerous, I know deep within my own heart that I am far more dangerous than anyone knows. I have had years of experiencing my own selfishness and vulnerabilities. Often I have cried out with Paul, the Apostle, “Who can save me from this body of sin?” (Romans 6, 7). When we look inside ourselves, we will also want the law, hoping that we can prove ourselves by meeting some standard and then protect ourselves by offering our proof of meeting the standard. The law only encourages an isolation mindset, because relationships are impossible when we are consumed with proving and protecting.
I think there is a profound truth in this story. When we only look at each others’ — or our own — sin and humanness, we will immediately be drawn to the law. The law promises control, immediate relief, and safety. The law was invented to address sin, and it does a pretty good job of it. But when we look at the law we miss grace — which is another way of saying we miss Jesus who is found in the midst of the ruins of our lives.
Who do you trust enough to look into the eyes of others who are hurting, sinning, addicted, insane and love them and let them love you? It would be crazy to trust them. It might be crazier to trust yourself. And so we trust the law? We look for the answer, the right thing to do, the path that’s safest for everyone? And that might be craziest of all. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would . . . go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion” (Galatians 2, 3).
How can we look into one another’s eyes and see Jesus and trust Him? I think that’s an important question – a potentially life-changing question. When our confidence in the law is greater than our trust in Jesus in the midst of the mess, we will hide from each other and never experience grace. Grace — we talk about it, name our churches after it, make it the center of our doctine, and yet grace is not cognitively learned. It is relationally experienced.
When we look into one another’s eyes and see the need for some law and order, then we are compelled to face our sin and work on it by accomplishing a set of tasks. When we look into one another’s eyes and see Jesus, then we are compelled to tell each other about Him and the power of shame is broken.
How can we look into one another’s eyes and see Jesus? I’d love to hear your ideas. Today at BridgeHouse when the locked up woman looked into my eyes and asked, “What are you looking at?”, the best answer would have been, “I’m looking at me in you, and I see Jesus, and that means this anxiety, paranoia, and scary behavior is not who you are –that’s just the brokenness that shapes the room for Him to live in.”
“The world is full of [people] . . . full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need.” Matthew 6, The Message
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