A sermon preached on September 9, 2007, based on Psalm 139:1 – 6; 13 – 18 entitled “Knit Together In Our Mother’s Wombs”.
I met someone who had recently consulted with a psychiatrist who is also some sort of neuro-scientist. The doctor had put him through a battery of complicated tests, including scans of his brain. Afterwards, sitting in the doctor’s office for the interpretations of the tests, the doctor showed him pictures of his brain. “Here,” he said pointing to particular portions of the brain scan, “you see how these areas are lit up? Most peoples’ brain scans don’t look like this. What this means is that the synapses of your brain in these areas are routinely firing a whole lot more frequently than they do in most peoples’ brains.
“On a practical level, what this means is that you will always be more susceptible to depression and anxiety than other people, and concentration will always present you with challenges. Fortunately, there are medications we can give you to help cope with these difficulties, but you need to know that this is simply the nature of your brain. This is how you are wired.”
Needless to say, this person was pretty blown away by this consultation. On the one hand, there was bad news in what he heard: “Because your brain is wired this way, you will always be susceptible to depression and anxiety. This isn’t ever going away.”
But there was also something liberating in what he had heard the doctor say. This person had already struggled throughout his life with depression and anxiety, and often times the interpretation he had made of this struggle — the interpretation he had encouraged to come to by the people around him — was that the waves of depression and anxiety that he had struggled with in life were character flaws within himself — that he should be able to cope better with life, and that his failure to do so meant he was a wimp, lazy — not a real man.
What the doctor had told him was releasing him from this interpretation: “No, this doesn’t mean you’re a wimp, or a lazy bum, or a bad person. This is simply the cards you were dealt in life. In fact, considering what you’ve been dealt by way of the design of your brain, you are to be complimented with how well you have coped.”
Now here is a question I would like to ask this morning: Is this person’s brain “good” or “bad”? Or to put it another way, is such a brain as this a “sick brain” or a “well brain?”
I don’t mean to give an absolute answer here, one way or another. I believe that there are some forms of what we call “mental illness” that are so brutal in the suffering they inflict that it is hard to see them as, in any sense, “good” — something which, if we had the opportunity, one wouldn’t want to a cure.
But here’s where the picture becomes cloudier: I know this person to be a very sensitive soul, with unique gifts which, in some sense, go hand in hand with the same sensitivities that make him prone to depression and anxiety. In this regard, he isn’t so uncommon. There have been countless great artists, scientists, statesman (Abraham Lincoln comes quickly to mind), with extraordinary abilities that allowed them to make great contributions to the human race who have suffered from depression and anxiety. And as in Jesus’ parable about a harvest of wheat and weeds, if we tried to yank out the weeds, might there not be some danger we’d yank out wheat by mistake?
Sometimes, the sickness gets identified in the individual, when in truth, it might well be more accurate to locate the sickness in society at large.
Take anorexia, for instance, that terrible mental illness that afflicts primarily teenage girls, whereby they refuse to eat, in some instances starving themselves to death. If you scanned the brains of anorexic young women there would be characteristics that would distinguish their brain scans from that of other young women. You would be able to look at their brain scans and say, this is a brain that is predisposed towards suffering from anorexia.
But here’s the thing: In the United States, something like one out of a hundred teenage girls fall suffer from anorexia. Another four out of a hundred suffer from bulimia, another eating disorder similarly found primarily in teenage women.
If, however, you went to other cultures, especially simpler, less commercialized cultures, and you scanned all the brains of the teenage girls in those cultures, you would find a similar proportion with scans that indicate a predisposition to anorexia or bulimia, and yet you would find a lot fewer of these girls actually suffering from these forms of self-abuse.
And the reason, of course, is that the girls in these other cultures aren’t being bombarded the ways girls in our culture are being barraged with messages regarding the absolute importance of physical attractiveness — defined, of course, by the standards of the culture — which includes a fixation with being thin.
Christian writer Don Miller puts it this way:
“Television drives me crazy sometimes because everybody is so good-looking, and yet you walk through the aisles of the grocery stores, and nobody looks like that. Somebody told me that in London people don’t judge you as much by the way you look, and I think it is true because late night on PBS they play shows out of England and the actors aren’t good-looking, and I sit there wondering if anybody else is watching and asking the same question: Why aren’t the actors in London good looking? And I already know the answer to the question, it is that America is one of the most immoral countries in the world and that our media has reduced humans to slabs of meat…”
Wow. That last line hits us hard. There are ways in which I think we are justified in thinking of our country as being out in front when it comes to morality, but through this particular lens, Miller would seem to be on to something. Our society quietly brutalizes young women with the onslaught of these messages that are put forth in order to turn profits at the expense of human lives.
I came across some striking statistics on a website about anorexia. American women come in all kinds of wonderful shapes and sizes. The average of all the various heights and weights is five foot four inches and a hundred and forty five pounds. In contrast, Barbie, the iconic doll that girls grow up with, is built proportionate to a six foot tall woman weighing in at an anorexic 101 pounds. The average American woman wears a dress size between 11 and 14. Barbie wears a size 4, and the typical mannequin you see in a store wears a size 6. In other words, the vast majority of women are falling far short of the ideals put forth by the culture.
When I’m going through the check out lines at the grocery store or a convenience store (something most Americans do hundreds of times a year), and I see all those prominently displayed magazines with cover exposes of female movie stars who dared to go out in public in a bathing suit, revealing the cellulitis in their thighs as though in doing so they had committed some great sin, I think about all you women forced to look at these magazine covers, not to mention the young women suffering from anorexia or bulimia, and I think to myself, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing some day to take a can of lighter fluid and go into these stores, and quietly pour it over all those magazines at the checkout lines, politely ask everybody to step back, and then light a match as an act of civil disobedience — that such an act would have something in common with that great act of civil disobedience Jesus committed that day long ago when he went into the temple and trashed the tables of the money changers, driving them out of the temple because they were ripping off the poor, promoting a system that lay heavy burdens of never-ending shame and guilt on ordinary folks, all in the name of God.
So how, you might be wondering, did I get on to this whole train of thought? Well, it was this morning’s reading from Psalm 139 that triggered these reflections. Hear part of it again:
“For it was you (O Lord) who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb…”
The point here is that God made us the way we are. The “inward parts” that God knit together in our mothers’ wombs include such things as our DNA and the distinctive ways our brains were wired at birth.
At the end of the story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, God looks at everything God has made, and God declares that it is very good. If we take this seriously, what this means is that you and I and everybody was made good — indeed, very good.
The sensitive soul whose brain cells are wired in such a way that he or she may more readily experience depression, anxiety or anorexia has unique gifts, though often these gifts go unrecognized: gifts of empathy and compassion; gifts of creativity and vision. The problem may not be so much in the sensitive souls as it is in the way societies have no room for such sensitive souls to dwell.
One of the best known verses of scripture is, “’Judgment is mine,’ says the Lord.” God alone has the prerogative of passing judgment, and one of the most common ways what the Bible calls “sin” gets expressed is in the human tendency to pass damning judgments on that which God has declared “very good.”
From time to time I drive over the Tappan Zee Bridge. This past week I passed over this bridge and noticed new signs that hadn’t been there before, placed in both directions as you approach the center of the bridge: “Life is a precious gift: 24 hour hotline ahead.” Apparently these signs were needed because too many people were driving to the center of the bridge — the highest spot — and ending their lives by jumping off. Now there is a 24 hour hotline there in the hope that some poor soul so tempted might be able to speak to someone who will convince them that the conclusions they have reached about the worthlessness of their lives are simply wrong.
There was a news headline this week that indicated that there has been a significant rise in the past year in the suicide rate of teenagers in America, and that this rise was driven by a particularly large increase in the number of teenager girls who had chosen to end their lives — girls who heard the cultural messages of what the good life consists of and so easily came to their own judgment that their own lives just didn’t measure up.
And it isn’t only girls, of course, to whom our society gives oppressive messages. Boys easily grow up in this world internalizing messages that tell them they aren’t tough enough on the one hand, or on the other, that there is something bad about them because the way their brains were wired by God, they find it awfully hard to sit still for six hours a day in a classroom.
We could go on here for quite some time talking about the various ways we grow up thinking the way we were knit together in our mother’s wombs are bad, because a sin-sick world has told us we are bad.
And so this morning as we have begun a new year of Sunday School, let us celebrate again our mission statement. Read over the whole thing, but specifically, the last line: “We seek to celebrate the uniqueness of every human being.”
Let’s tell our children: “You’re precious, kid. You are wonderful just the way God made you. You have unique and wonderful gifts that God has given you with which to bless the world. Don’t try to be something other than what God made you to be.”
Here in this church we are going to try and give our kids this message as often as we can, and in as many ways as we can, so that maybe these beautiful children won’t be so susceptible to believe it when the world tells them they aren’t good enough.