This is a story of vexing mental illness on the part of king Saul. We don’t know what this “spirit” that beset him was, since “spirit” was the only language the authors had to describe it. But we know that it led him to deep depression, to mood swings including fits of violent rage. We know he threatened to kill those around him, including family, and would make attempts.
Perhaps today Saul would have gotten diagnosed with PTSD, bi-polar disorder, or some kind of neurological condition.
The fact David is called to his side, David sits at his side, and throughout his life David chooses not to take advantage of Saul’s illness by killing him and moving in as king even though David knows God has chosen David to replace Saul shows us something into God’s heart about illness.
We are quick to judge or condemn people with mental illness, to put them down. In reality, often in our society folks dealing with mental illness lose homes, lose families, may end up homeless or jailed largely for symptoms of their illness. The church, too, often rejects and shuns those with mental illness. It is an “invisible disability” that vexes many lives with little comfort.
Yet God demonstrates through David a compassion upon Saul. I think we need to learn to cultivate such a compassion too for people with mental illness. No one signs up to say they are sick. Each of them are someone’s child, brother, sister, mother, father, friend. All are God’s children deserving love. Some have symptoms which may cause us to need some firm boundaries with them to be safe, but many people with mental illnesses simply need understanding and friendship.
I’m also struck that it is the arts which help Saul – particularly music. There is a power in writing, in music, in painting, sculpting, and acting to tap into parts of ourselves that may be wells of deep pain, transforming that pain into sources of wholeness and health.
I think this points toward the need to be creative, to think of how can we include people in our communities in ways that help them have a healing experience of creativity? It may be those among us whose symptoms make them seem so disruptive when having to sit through an academic intellectual class-style sermon or Bible study might thrive and strengthen events involving arts, creative expression, hands-on service, mindfulness, poetry, or other aspects that draw on areas of strength. This is the experience of many working with non-neurotypical children with conditions like autism or ADHD which likely would have also been considered having a spirit in some parts of the ancient world.
Developing a heart of love and compassion for all people includes working to welcome people with mental illness and who are not neurotypical into our lives as family, friends, community members, and church members. Widening that welcome in our lives may take learning healthy boundaries and learning to be creative, but I think it is part of Christ’s call to each of us.
And I ain’t whistling Dixie here,
your progressive redneck preacher,