Silver Linings – Seeing God

silver-lining

The Oscars are on the way this Sunday, February 24. Leading the pack for nominations is Silver Linings Playbook. Described as a romantic comedy, Silver Linings has garnered a rarely-seen eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Director (David O. Russell), Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence) , Best Supporting Actor (Robert DeNiro) and Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver).[1]

I was drawn to Silver Linings not because of its rarified Oscar status, but because of its rare portrayal of a slice in the life of a person living with bi-polar disorder and its vocational and relational impact among family and friends struggling with their own mental health issues. Silver Linings uses comedy and romance to soften the tough realities of the roller coaster ride that is bi-polar disorder. But even with its obligatory dose of Hollywood artifice, it touches a deep human chord, candidly capturing how brokenness and love, anguish and healing are woven together in the fabric of life.

Silver Linings’  resonance flows from the personal experience of Director David Russell, whose son and friend are living with bi-polar disorder:

It’s very personal to me. My son, I’ve been through this with my son and his friend, and that’s why I did the movie,” director David O. Russell told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s New York premiere on Monday night, nodding his head back at his teenage son, who takes in the after-party scene from a few feet away. “So when it’s personal, you know that you’re coming from the right place. You’re not coming from a reckless place. You’re coming from a very careful place. I’m 18 years deep with this kid, so I’m very invested in him and his friends.”[2]

Matthew Quick wrote the eponymous book from which the film is derived while living at home with his parents after quitting his teaching job due to depression:

“You’re never laughing at somebody that has a mental health illness, you’re laughing at the absurdity of what’s going on, for all the characters involved,” he said…pointing to his own history of depression — “As someone who has worked in the mental health community, I know that laughter is very important. And the people I’ve worked with, if they could laugh at the absurdity — again, never at the people — they usually had a much better success rate of suffering from mental illness.” [3]

I’m 23 years into an emerging journey with my wonderful son, who was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder three years ago. Silver Linings has touched a deep place in my heart. So has the Bible.

In my life and faith journey I’ve come to understand the Bible as a book of brokenness more than a book of rules. Like Silver Linings, the Bible gives us a candid window into the lives of broken people. Both those writing the texts and those depicted in the texts are people who encounter violence and betrayal, anguish and loss, love and mercy, healing and hope. God breaks into their brokenness to reveal a deeper dimension of life and purpose. I’ve found that as I immerse myself in the Bible’s stories, God breaks into my life, touching deep places in my heart, opening my eyes to dimensions of life and love, hurt and healing that I never knew before.

How might the Bible open a healing path of encounter with God for someone like me and my son, struggling through the daily realities of life with mental illness? Silver Linings is speaking to so many families dealing with mental illness. Might the Bible do the same?

I’ve found hope and strength – even humor!—in a particular Bible story that I’d like to share with you. In this story I’ve discovered a Silver Lining – without Hollywood artifice – in my ongoing healing journey with my son:

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”[4]

In this story, Jesus sees a man who can’t see him. And he sees him differently than others do. The blind man’s neighbors saw him as a beggar (v8). Jesus’ disciples saw him as a theological problem, a subject of blame and shame, marred by sin, cursed with blindness. (v2) Jesus sees him through a different lens—not the lens of religious rules, blame and shame, personal and/or family sin and social nuisance: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus says, releasing all of them from the unbearable weight of being somehow responsible for his condition. “This man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (v3) This man’s brokenness is a place where God can break in and reveal a deeper dimension of life, love, healing, purpose.

For those of us living with mental illness in ourselves or our families, this is good news.  Mental illness is not a sin. It’s not a question of personal failure or family failure. People with mental illness are not social nuisances. Mental illness is a place where God can break in to reveal a deeper dimension of life, love, healing and purpose.

God doesn’t break in in an abstract, disembodied way. “We must work,”(v4) Jesus says, to carry out God’s healing purpose. And Jesus lights the way, getting “down and dirty,” taking the common, earthly, gritty stuff of life – stuff that most of us would rather not deal with, stuff that most of us would scoff, ignore or “spit upon.” But when Jesus spits on the ground, when Jesus makes mud pies, God breaks in. (v6) Jesus takes what he has made from spit and dirt—he uses mud pies as healing salve and puts it on the man’s eyes. Then he gives him something to do – a way to participate in his own healing. “Go, wash in the pool,”(v7a) Jesus tells him. “Then he went and washed and came back able to see.”(v7b)

In the world of mental illness, we have work to do too. Those of us who are struggling for sanity and those of us who are struggling to love and live with those who are in that struggle are agents of God’s healing purpose. It’s messy, dirty work. The real stuff of life. The nitty gritty of living with mental illness is something that most of us would rather not deal with. It’s far easier to scoff at those with mental illness, dismissing them as kooks, crackpots, misfits and beggars. But in the midst of the mess, God is at work. Through mundane modalities such as support groups, therapist visits, in-patient and out-patient treatment, rehabilitation and vocational programs, old-school and new-school medications, and the tension and tumult of relationships with family and friends, God is massaging the muddy salve of healing through human hands.

Progress is incremental, with many discouraging seasons of setbacks and seemingly intractable blockades. Sometimes help seems far away and out of reach. At other times help is agonizingly close and yet refused by the one who needs it most! Sometimes, as Jesus said, the first step toward healing is as simple as washing up. What a miracle that the blind man followed this simple advice!(v7)  In this story and others in the Bible, seeing a mentally ill person washed and dressed is transformative, a sign of a new beginning. In the world of mental illness, personal hygiene, adequate sleep and the simple activities of daily living are all markers on the path to wellness and stability.

When slogging through the muddy trenches of mental illness, it’s sometimes hard to believe when a breakthrough occurs, when a real-life miracle happens. The blind man’s neighbors could hardly believe what they saw. Could this man really change? Was healing really possible in his situation?

The story goes on to tell us how hard it was for his parents and his religious community to handle what was happening to him.[5] Perhaps it had been easier for them to keep their hands clean and quarantine his condition in an “off-limits” closet. But when Jesus broke in, he made a muddy mess of everything! And healing actually occurred, breaking the rules!

One of the most painful junctures I’ve experienced in the mental health journey with my son is the narrow, rigid religiosity that turns a blind eye to the real-life struggles of those living with mental illness – dismissing them as demonic, or berating them for misbehaving, or condemning them for failing to conform to prevailing religious norms. Sadly, God’s people sometimes draw back from God’s work because it’s too messy, too muddy, too complicated for religious rules. I have to admit, I have been there, too. My son’s mental illness has made me grow beyond the rigid boundaries that shut him and God out.

Unlike the beautiful two-hour film, the journey for my son and me is not over, not neatly tied up in a beautiful Hollywood bow, not nominated for eight Oscars. But in the mud, I’ve encountered Jesus and seen his love at work in and through our lives. God has broken in and opened my eyes. And that is my Silver Lining.

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