May 16, 2021 (Mental Health Sunday) “Hold the Hope”
When Nightlife appeared at Tol Proudfoot’s chicken coop that morning, he seemed off, not quite himself. The people around Katy’s Branch had grown accustomed to the spells that overtook Nightlife from time to time, spells that left him sad, angry, confused, and maybe dangerous. During his spells, no one could help Nightlife. Sometimes, he had to go to the hospital until the spell broke and he was able to crawl back into his own skin again.
The night before he appeared at Tol’s chicken coop, Nightlife had presented himself to the preacher and visiting preacher at the revival down at the church. Nightlife told the two that he, Nightlife, would be preaching the sermon that night. Tol and everybody learned later that Nightlife’s plan had been to tell what it was like to be himself. The preachers said no.
That no–the church not wanting to hear what it was like to be him–sent Nightlife into this current spell, which sent him to Tol’s chicken coop that morning. Before Tol knew what had happened, Nightlife had picked up Tol’s rifle, “Old Fetcher.” Tol’s heart sank when Nightlife said, “Why, a fellow just as well shoot hisself, I reckon.”
Tol’s nephew Sam had dropped by, so Tol sent Sam to go tell Tol’s wife, Miss Minnie, what was going on, and then to go get some of the neighbors to come help. Then Tol set out after Nightlife. He wasn’t sure what he could do, but Tol was certain Nightlife needed following.
All told, 9 of Nightlife’s neighbors follow him that day and into the next. Wendell Berry’s story, Watch with Me, recounts the tale of Tol, Sam, and their neighbors following Nightlife. They follow him up the hill. They follow him to Uncle Othy and Aunt Cordie Dagget’s house and gasp when he walks in the door with the gun. (They later learn all he wanted to do was to pray over their lunch.) The neighbors follow him along Katy’s Branch.
When Nightlife goes into the woods that night and they lose him, the 9 of them fall asleep. At sunrise, they wake up to Nightlife standing over them, crying in disbelief, “Could you not stay awake? Could you not stay awake?” Then he wanders off again. They pick up Nightlife’s trail a little later and follow him…until a rainstorm comes. They head for Tol’s barn.
In today’s reading from Acts, we hear the story of Jesus’ Ascension. It always comes the Sunday before Pentecost. The story of Pentecost usually gets more press…which makes sense. I mean, God’s Spirit blowing in, tongues of flame appearing on everyone’s heads, people speaking in tongues and everyone understanding each other. Such drama!
The story of the Ascension isn’t as dramatic, but without it, there would have been no Pentecost at all.
The book of Acts begins with the resurrected Jesus’ last minutes on Earth. Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus gathers his disciples on a hill outside Jerusalem and promises them the gift of the Spirit. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And then–WHOOSH! Jesus flies off into the sky and a cloud takes him out of their sight.
No doubt, jaws were scraping the ground. “What just happened? Jesus left again? Again? Now what are we going to do? Jesus! Don’t leave us again!”
Jesus flying up into the ether, yeah. I guess that’s pretty dramatic…but that’s not the most important thing that happens in this scene. The most important part of this story, the thing that makes the birth of the church possible, happens next.
“While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two people in white robes stood by them and said, ‘Why are you looking towards heaven?”
It’s a good question. Jesus told them to go back to Jerusalem, but they’re still staring at the sky. Jesus told them to wait for the gift of the Spirit, but they’re still staring at the sky. Jesus told them to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth, but they’re still staring at the sky. “Why are you looking towards heaven?” They’re asked.
Imagine we’re those disciples. We’ve followed Jesus and learned from him. We lived through his violent death, then rejoiced in his resurrection. What joy it’s been to spend these last 40 days with him. Then we follow Jesus out to the hill, ready for another teaching. He says something about the Spirit, whatever that is, then Whoosh! He flies up into heaven.
So, we’re all staring at the sky with our jaws dropped wondering what in the world has just happened, when into the stunned silence, someone speaks. What are we going to do? We’re staring into the ether, flabbergasted, and someone on the ground speaks. What will we do? We’re going to lower our heads and look for who’s speaking, right? We’re going to shift our gaze from the sky to the ground, from heaven to Earth, from what was to what is becoming.
And that is what makes Pentecost and the birth of the church possible–the shifted gaze from the Jesus they knew // to the world he was sending them to love; the shifted focus from the ephemeral things of heaven to the hard realities of life on Earth; the shift from looking only to Jesus to now looking to each other.
The story of Nightlife’s sinking spell is an Ascension story. Tol and his friends could have prayed to God about Nightlife, they could have looked to a far-away Jesus to save Nightlife, like those revival preachers were doing. But Nightlife didn’t need another empty prayer. Nightlife needed people to look after him while he wasn’t himself. He needed people to keep him safe. Tol and all the neighbors tracking Nightlife for a day and a half–being present to Nightlife in his darkness–that was the best prayer they could have prayed for him. Nightlife needed people who were focused on the real world and not some faraway heaven.
On this Mental Health Sunday, the story of Tol and his friends caring for Nightlife in the best way they could, offers a picture of how we might be church to folks who struggle with mental health issues–we look to each other and band together to offer our support, even if we don’t quite know what to do. And we stay present until the spell is broken…or until the meds kick in…or until the light begins to seep in through the cracks.
As Tol and company talk in the barn, rain pelting the roof, Nightlife walks in, still holding Old Fetcher. “Brethren,” he says, “Let us stand and sing.” They sing “Unclouded Day.”
After the hymn, Nightlife preaches the sermon he’d been wanting to preach about his life. He tells the story of the lost sheep. “Oh, it’s a dark place, my brethren. It’s a dark place where the lost sheep tries to find his way, and can’t. The slopes is steep and the footing hard. The ground is rough and stumbly and dark, and overgrown with bushes and briars, a hilly and a hollery place. And the shepherd comes a-looking and a-calling to his lost sheep, and the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and he wants to go to it, but he can’t find the path, and he can’t make it.” “The others knew that Nightlife knew what he was talking about. They knew he was telling what it was to be him.”
While Nightlife preached, Miss Minnie’s old setting hen came in. She was none too happy to find Nightlife preaching right in front of her nest. “She began to walk back and forth at Nightlife’s feet…Now and again, she squatted and opened her wings as if to fly up to her nest, and then changed her mind. At last, she crouched almost directly in front of Nightlife, and with a leap, a desperate, panic-stricken, determined outcry, and a great flapping of wings, she launched herself upward…she hung there in front of Nightlife’s face, flapping and squawking…until Nightlife slapped her away.”
By the time the hen hit the ground, Nightlife’s spell was broken. He was back in his own skin and handed Old Fetcher back to Tol. About that time, they heard the dinner bell ring and headed back to Tol’s house to partake of the feast Miss Minnie had prepared.
Years later, Miss Minnie summed up the story of what happened that day and a half this way. “Poor Thacker Hample,” (that was Nightlife’s given name). “They kept him alive that time, anyhow. They and the Good Lord.”
“And that old hen,” Sam Hanks said.
“Yes, that old hen,” Miss Minnie said. She mused a while, rocking in her chair. Finally she said, “And don’t you know that old hen survived it all. She hatched fourteen chicks and raised them, every one!”
They kept him alive that time, anyhow. They and the Good Lord. Yes. That is our calling as a compassionate community–do what we can to keep each other alive and whole, us and the Good Lord. As a beloved and loving community, we are called to hold the hope for each other. (Video)