Lord of the excluded,
Open my ears to those
I would prefer not to hear,
Open my life to those
I would prefer not to know,
And so open my eyes to see
Where I exclude you.
— Iona Abbey Prayer
“Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the Lord. And you shall know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you” (Zech 2:10, NIV).
Thanksgiving is here and Christmas is coming. It is a wonderful time of hope fueled by memory.
It is also the darker season of human expectation when brokenness, limitations and inadequacy loom large in the gap between how it is and how it should be. The news is full of holiday domestic violence, shootings, hostage-taking, child abductions, and suicides in glaring contrast to the warm media depictions of prosperous, happy families gathering in love.
Instead of shepherds watching in the fields, a difficult vigil is being kept by nurses, physicians, case managers and even the attorney-on-call who happens to be me. There are 20, count ’em, 20 patients in the emergency room for psychiatric evaluations in this holiday night that is anything, but silent.
At the county hospital across town, the police recently brought in a big man with the superhuman strength of a drug-induced rage. He was strapped down to a gurney. Somehow, he managed to kick and thrash his arms and legs free and stand with the gurney still strapped to his back. He savagely beat a young nurse and scalped her when her hair caught in the side rail of the gurney and he violently jerked her around.
That hospital now insists that law enforcement remain with the patients they bring in on “5150s,” referring to the number of the statute in the California Health and Welfare Code that authorizes 72-hour custodial holds so that persons deemed to be “a danger to themselves or others” can be evaluated for possible placement in a psychiatric facility.
The officers don’t want to be tied up with waiting so they bring the patients to our Medical Center’s emergency room instead. The problem is that we have no psychiatric license to permit admission of the patients needing treatment and facilities that have such licenses are few and far between.
Mental health is the most neglected part of our health care system. Mental health patients are stigmatized as unstable, dangerous, unreliable and therefore useless in a society that prizes utility and appearances. Denial is the prevailing public reaction even as fear, shame, insecurity and violence are exacerbated by the pressures of contemporary life.
There are many contributing factors to poor mental health in our region. The more significant of these include. broken family systems, substandard schools, alcohol and drug addiction, crime, poverty, debt, physical and emotional neglect and abuse, hours of time a day locked up in frustrating freeway commutes, the instant demands of social media, the ravages of relativism on community standards and virtue in the public square, and a loss of faith in God.
The problems are overwhelming and there is a temptation to give up on solving them. Indeed, many institutions and governments do give up. Instead of treatment and cure which take time and money, the policy emphasis is placed on processes and rights. This means that care providers have as little involvement with the afflicted as possible.
Soulless, loveless social systems produce broken, loveless people. Appeals to personal responsibility are meaningless to those who have no examples or training. Conscience and good judgment require moral development. They do not appear spontaneously. They are the product of applied grace (Tit 2:11-13).
So the morally defective, emotionally despairing, and desperately pathological are collected for assessment in our level 1 trauma center that is not permitted by law to treat them even if it had the capacity to do so. The real reason, these sad wretches are here, of course, is temporary storage — law enforcement wants them out of their homes and off the streets for even a little while and the jails are overflowing. Our professionals do the best they can, while they can, but these patients are lost without a touch from God.
The prophet Zechariah was writing to a lost people. A lot of them were exiles in a harsh society, alienated from home, family and their religion. Those who stayed back in Jerusalem were oppressed, impoverished and dispirited. They had forgotten their past and were merely surviving in their squalid present.
When Zechariah extended the Lord’s invitation to “return to me . . . and I will return to you” (Zech 1:3), they had no idea of what he was talking about. The problem had started way back in the family at a time when the Lord told their ancestors, “Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds,” but they didn’t listen or obey” (Zech 1:4). Now, their descendants were an oppressed people trying to make it on their own without mercy.
One mark of insanity is a lack of capacity to receive or extend mercy in a harsh, inconsiderate existence. Guilt and shame without the relief of forgiveness or repentance has soul-crushing power.
I was told this week of grandparents who have never seen their grandchildren because for more than 10 years they have disapproved of their daughter’s refusal to follow to the letter the harsh strictures of their legalistic brand of Christianity. The truth that their daughter is a vibrant, devoted follower of Christ and a warm, happy wife and mother is of no consequence to these graceless zealots. Does such endanger hearts and souls any less than the anti-social behavior that lands people in the emergency room for a psychiatric evaluation?
But here is the amazing thing– our God, who is love (1 John 4:19), is out to redeem lives, not teach lessons or settle scores. “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
He speaks to his broken people “with gracious and comforting words” (Zech 1:13). Instead of defensiveness, he offers openness with himself as protection (Zech 2:2-3). He addresses their abuse and shame by telling them, “Whoever touches you touches the apple of [my] eye” (Zech 2:8).
He who created the lives that sin has broken desires to mend and restore them to health. To do that, he has to touch, clean, soothe and protect his sin-damaged children. That requires his immediate presence with us and he comes.
His voice rings out: “Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares the Lord. “And you shall know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you” (Zech 2:10, NIV). He is saying that cycles of shame don’t have to last forever; nothing is broken that can’t be healed; and what we have now is not what we are stuck with forever; because he is moving into the neighborhood with us.
The Lord Jesus Christ made good on this promise. Turned away from the inn, he was born in a stable to a teen-aged mother under circumstances that to this day cause people to debate his legitimacy (Matt 1:18-21;Luke 2:1-7). As an adult, he had “no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). His hometown rejected him and tried to kill him (Luke 4:16-30). His own brothers had no faith in him (John 7:5). His family sought to restrain him for his own good as other people said that he’d lost his mind (Mark 3:20-21). Religious authorities accused him of being demon possessed (Mark 3:22; John 8:48). He was arrested, condemned and executed for crimes he did not commit.
All this he endured and when we call on him we can be sure that he knows the temptations and darkness that envelops us and he can give grace and mercy to help us in our time of need (Heb 4:15-16).
Jesus said, “Shout and be glad” because comes to love and heal us, not blast us. And when Jesus said, “I will live among you,” he did not specify a city or a zip code because everyone can get in on this and know his peace as reality.
True peace is not the absence of trouble. Peace is the presence of God in the midst of our trouble. He is the “Wonderful Counselor, the Father-Who-Won’t-Quit-On-Us, and the Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6, paraphrased). He doesn’t just call in a prescription or send a check. He is Emmanuel, “God is with us,” which mean he comes and sits with us and shares our pain while speaking his gracious and comforting words to us.
Jesus Christ is never deterred by the mess we’ve made of things. In fact, the bigger our mess, the more grace he has for us (Rom 5:20). This is good news for those waiting in the emergency room tonight, and for you and me whatever mess we happen to be in, as we wait together for “the dawn of redeeming grace.” In the meanwhile, may our lives be prayers of action ministering the kindness of the Christ.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
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