Vincent van Gogh once said, “I tell you, the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
When I was in college, at the University of Texas, I got a job as a psychiatric caseworker at the Austin State Hospital. I worked the evening shift, 3:00 – 11:00 pm, on the adult psychiatric unit — a resident unit with up to 30 men and women in two separate wards. In retrospect, the setting was very much like a scene out of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In time, however, I came to find the whole experience spiritually enlightening and humbling.
The first day pretty much set the tone for the two years I worked there. I was escorted onto the unit by one of the nurses and immediately met by a 30-year-old man who I was told alternated between being Jesus and “Roger’s best friend.” The latter moniker was given to him because, when he wasn’t Jesus, he was always addressing whoever he met as his long-lost buddy, Roger, which is how he met me that afternoon.
“Roger, how you doing, Pal?!”
I didn’t know any better at the time, and said, “No, I’m not Roger.” The man became agitated and anxious, “Yes, you are, too. Yes. Yes. Yes! Come on, Roger, stop messing with me, Man!”
I stammered a moment, and he continued, “Look, I’ve had a bad spill. My beautiful job left me and my full-time wife fired me and the car is arrested and I’m . . . Hey, you got a smoke?!”
The nurse smiled and distracted him for a moment and told me to go on into the nursing station to get my badge and paperwork.
Every other person in the unit was a variation on that first encounter. And the orientation of the staff there seemed to be one of safety, maintenance, and controlled chaos. This was 1978, and very little was known about how to treat adult schizophrenia at the time, other than medication and maintenance.
Looking back, I would say that working there wouldn’t have been my first encounter with Jesus spiritually speaking. But it was my first encounter with Jesus in the flesh. He came out of nowhere one workday. I’d had a really bad day on campus. A student I’d befriended earlier that week committed suicide and it hit me hard. But I still had to show up for work.
John walked up, Roger’s buddy, and I felt a tinge of defensiveness knowing I’d have to once again remind him I’m not Roger and wasn’t up to the task first thing through the door.
Then I noticed the expression on his face. No panic. No anxiety. Just gentle eyes and a calm smile. He reached out both hands and held mine a moment. And then added, “Know you are loved and that I am here for you.”
I felt my heart race for a moment, because I had not met Jesus before. I stammered out, “What?”
And he said, “You look really upset. It’s gonna be fine. It’s crazy here. But it’s gonna be fine.”
And then he smiled again, released my hand and walked slowly away, as if in a meditative mind.
That encounter changed me . . . Not because I had suddenly met Jesus in person. And yet, exactly because I’d just met Jesus in person. And the next time Roger’s buddy came looking for me, I was there and listened. And discovered just how much Roger meant to him, too.
I can tell you that I spent the remaining two years there getting to know people, characters, and sometimes helping to keep the chaos to a minimum. But most of the time, I just came to work curious about who I was going to meet next and who I was going to be and what the encounter might teach me.
Life is an art form, an improvisational act. And like Van Gogh or Jesus or our text for this coming Sunday, we are all artists in some form or other, invited to participate in this canvas of life and to set one another free.
This Sunday, in nine:thirty-nine and eleven:eleven celebrations, we explore
“Freedom is a Ten-Letter Word”
with music from Florence and the Machine, Ruthie Foster, and Solomon Burke
Join us for some laughter, some refreshments and some surprising inspiration.
See you soon!