John 15: 1-8
The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

“Life-Giving Connections Feeding Mental Wellness” John 15:18 ~

Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ May 2, 2021  

Depression…an increasing loss of energy, interest and zest for living; a growing inability to ‘feel’ and offer compassion towards others. Some describe it as a black fog which overcomes, and one cannot see their way out. Nor do they even wish to try. We all have some ‘bad days’, but when the bad days mount and increasingly outweigh the good; when there is a profound dis-ease with living; we have a disease that mental health labels depression. He doesn’t know exactly when his depression arrived. It’s like the metaphor of that frog who jumps in the kettle slowly heating up. At it’s worst, depression mounted its powerful grips upon him while his marriage was falling apart and stresses mounted. But as he looks back, it had, in many ways been there for years. Sleep was the distraction of choice as was alcohol and food. And life, increasingly, seemed unbearable and not worth living.

As depression grew, he needed to take time away from his profession on a medical leave and he found himself in a ward under psychiatric care. This is the kind of story that has been hidden away by so many over the years. In the past, we openly talk about our physical illness; however, it is only in the last few years that we have found the space to talk about mental illness. And just this year, our church has encouraged us to address this on the Sunday leading in to Mental Health Week, which commences tomorrow. And the importance of sharing stories, like this one, is now being realized. Creating awareness…having open dialogue…normalizing mental health alongside physical health is important because it creates space for people to share their stories. It allows for the larger community to offer and receive support through, not just their physical challenges, but also their psychological ones. The story I just shared about one’s journey through depression is mine. And I share my story of healing my depression in the hope that it creates further space for other’s stories to be honoured and to be heard. A John Hopkins Medical research study indicates that 1 out of every 4 of us is suffering with a diagnosable mental health issue. So, when we just consider our large group of Northwood, we know that there are a lot of stories to be told. As such, it is more important than ever that we share our struggles; that we share our journeys; that we know that ‘we are not alone’ in the paths that we walk.

I’ll share a little more of my journey as we continue; however, this is an opportune moment to shift over to this morning’s gospel lectionary text. I love when texts align with a theme so well. And as we examine the parable of vine and the vine grower, from a mental health perspective, I think we will see how the Spirit was alive in the process this week! This parable challenges the modern ideals championing the sovereign individual… the self-made woman or man… the power of rugged individual…and the weakness of relying upon the group. This parable challenges these virtues by offering the image of the vine and its branches. It is a tacit acknowledgement of the crucial connection, of the vital nourishment, of the rich life that each of the branches receives from the central vine. We, like the branches of the vine, cannot thrive alone; we cannot flourish independently; we are lovingly connected to the Creator as each branch is connected to the central vine. A modern-day interpretation of this abiding connection comes from The Message version of the Bible: “Live in me. Make your home in me, just as I do in you.”

Vineyard growers tell us that the best grapes produced are the ones that are closest to the central vine. As the lateral branches stray further off on their own, and ramble across the arbour, they are increasingly less connected. As they become distant from the source of nourishment, the grapes from these vines lose their flavour, they lack nutrients, they lack life. However, the more connected the vines are to the source of life, the more they resemble that life that first created them and continues to flow through them.

This text, seems, to have an element of judgment to it; however, I wonder if it is more about the faithful work of focusing on the deep connections that truly give each vine life. The gardeners among us know the value of “deadheading” a flower in order for new life to grow in the future. The most beautiful flowers that bloom today come as a result of the past action of pinching the dying parts off, in order to allow new life and blossoms to arrive in the future. The paradox, of course, is that the vine grower has some discerning work to do. She must cut away lifeless, unproductive branches. She must prune them in order to make way for new life.

This is the type of prescriptive behaviour that mental health professionals have been promoting. As Mental Health Awareness Week commences tomorrow, light is being shone on the importance of acknowledging the challenges that so many face. I appreciated the honesty and vulnerability shown by our own United Church Moderator just earlier this week as he shared some of his struggles with mental health in an email communication. Lifting up two scripture passages that guide him, he shared his challenges writing: “as I struggle with my sense of inadequacy, my bouts of depression, my own mental health.” The branches who stray further and further away from the central vine lack nutrients, lack flavour, lack life. It is the same for us, when we lose touch with the important connections which feed us, we begin to whither. For people of faith, we know how our spiritual health is interconnected that of the mental and the physical. These, in fact, are artificial separations that we try to make. The importance that community, in all of its various forms, can play in our lives can never be undervalued. The further the vine grows away from the source of life, the less life, the less flavour, the less joy it has. One of the articles featured in this year’s ‘Mental Health Week’ program is entitled “More Than Simply Fine.” It raises concern on our social tendency to interact with one another when they ask: ‘how are you?’ Without even a pause to ponder how I am doing, we have been trained to respond, ‘fine thanks…how ‘bout you?’ The article asks a question: what if ‘Hi…how are you doing?’ wasn’t a greeting, but actually became caring question we offered to another? What if, we slowed down and offered those questions with caring intention. What if we got a little closer to the central vine of life and deeply asked: ‘How ARE you doing?’ and then paused…and deeply listened to another’s answer. What if we got a little closer to the source of life, to the central vine, and (like God does) deeply cared for another? There is a wonderful African proverb that you may have heard which highlights this: ‘Because we are, I am.’ Because we are, I am is a call to community and care; because we are, I am is a call to the source of life that God offers; it is a call to the source of life that we can be to one another, as we find God in our midst. 

In addition to the importance of community, there is a call for discernment in this text. There is a call to pruning and conscious care. The vine keeper is actively pruning those vines that go astray; the gardener is deadheading the flowers which no longer express life and colour. We, also, must engage in practices of letting things go which take away from the life that God has blessed us to live. The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week “# Get Real about how you feel” lifts up the power of naming the feelings we have, rather than sweeping them under the metaphorical rug only to stumble over the mountain of mental health challenges. One article being promoted this year teaches about “affect labelling” by showing the way that putting one’s feelings into words, naming how one feels, actually changes one’s outlook and emotional well-being. The value of honesty in identifying, of naming, and managing our emotions cannot be undervalued. An article in the journal Psychological Science entitled “Putting Feelings into Words”, describes how MRI studies reveal the power of affect labelling in the brain. It showed how such naming of negative images actually reduces the activity of the amygdala and other limbic regions in our brains. And this is significant because these are the areas the areas that are associated with the ‘fight or flight systems’, and when overtaxed they break down and cause problems with our mental health. In vine-keeper terminology this is encouraging us to do what therpists call: “name it to tame it.” The parable has so much to offer in this area. It teaches us the value of staying close to the central vine ~ of nourishing those connections which enrich and support our healthy living. And it also teaches the importance of naming things, of being honest about the pains we suffer, and pruning some of them away.

For me, my depression gave me a ‘crash course in vine keeping’ and taught me to discover a life that I love. Now, well on the other side of things, I look back on the people and practices which added to my mental health. I think about a colleague, knowing that I was off on a health leave, who reached out to see what he could do. He invited me to come to his church and receive healing touch. I think about the psychiatrist who figured out my unique neurochemistry and discovered what chemicals my brain required. Some people take medication for physical maladies like heart disease or diabetes, I take small amounts of medication to buoy for my mental wellness. I think of my insightful therapist whom I worked with for many years in figuring out what needed to be pruned, what gives me life, and what takes it away, and when I need to say ‘no.’ She introduced me to the practice of mindfulness meditation, which takes us back to the MRI research study looking into the brain. This meditation, neurologists now are concluding, is yet another healthy way to care for our overtaxed amygdala which contribute to depression when we become overly stressed. Meditation became so important for me, that I chose to later pursue a year-long course in Washington with an amazing teacher, and I now offer it as an ongoing part of our Tuesday evening Spiritual Practice gatherings. And lastly, I came to learn the value that physical wellness plays in my overall well-being. I began working with a physical trainer and nutritional adviser. I changed my lifestyle habits and lost about 50 pounds.  

This is just ‘my story.’ I wonder what are yours? I wonder about the story of others around you who are suffering? I believe that there a lot of other stories yet to be told. If this text teaches us anything, it is about the depth of God’s profound care and love extending to us. And like the love and care, He calls us to offer unto others: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers.”   Thanks be to God for the beautiful ‘viney’ growth of our lives. May our lives be nourished by the many sources which give it a rich and meaningful life. May we prune the parts which have died. May we live into the abundant life that God offers. And may we, in turn, share it with others.