Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Remembering Mork: The Inner Sanctum of Outer Space

Five years ago, Robin Williams, gifted actor and comedian left this world by his own hand. The world was incredulous. How could a person so full of light struggle with such darkness? He was Mork, right? The hysterical alien who took up residence in Mindy’s attic.

We loved this lovable visitor from outer space. Weekly, he traversed the universe to inhabit our TV sets. But it was Mork, the out-of-this-world persona that we knew – not the personal inward workings of Robin Williams.

He died on August 11th of 2014. Three days later I posted this. U&U was just a few months old back then. A few of you may have read it but most not. And so, I am posting this update to honor and to remember this remarkable soul.

You are only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Robin Williams said.

So….

In 1966 the universe  — namely my universe —  tilted.  Thursday nights at nine o’clock on NBC, I boarded the U.S.S. Enterprise. “Space, the final frontier” called to me.. This was a mission, this little missionary, could barely conceive of – to “explore new worlds, seek new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Well I was “no man”. I was an awkward eleven year-old, a little Roman Catholic cosmonaut. Star Trek sounded like heaven to me. So in 1966, this little Trekkie was born.

I am a Trekkie still — a closet Trekkie.  I don’t go to conventions or dress up like a Romulan or speak Klingon, but I am still quite an officianado of Star Trek – especially the original Star Trek. I have all 80 episodes on DVD and a commemorative edition that came with a fluffy, purring, pink Tribble. I dorkily have plastic action figures of the crew, including the Captain and his coffee pot. Nothing could clear the room quite so quickly at my house as when I hunkered down to watch the reruns marathon style.

(An extended ritual I go through about once a year! I am especially fond of the episodes where the brazen and brash Captain James T. Kirk quite literally loses his shirt.)

This 1960’s series is still  a great solace to my dorky soul. While the cast and crew battle the unknown forces of the universe, I am comforted by the plethora of “M” class planets. “M” class planets are scattered all across the Milky Way and each one is capable of sustaining human life. I think “M” stands for miracle. Miraculously even the aliens speak English. The 430 crew members may be  “Lost in Space” but they are  never ever really far from home.

Star Trek was light years ahead of its time. Light years ahead of the space operas that came before it. But it is missing something that those quaint and quirky sci-fi series deeply understood. What is it like to truly be a stranger in a strange land?

My Favorite Martian blinked off the air the same year that Star Trek blinked on. Exigius, the exo-anthropologist from Mars crashed his one-man spaceship in Hollywood Hills. Stranded, he was taken in by a newspaper reporter who passes him off as Uncle Martin. (Sitting on the biggest story of his lifetime!)

Weekly Uncle Martin tries to keep his antenna down and and stay undercover. The going gets difficult though — especially when he breaks out in Martian mumps and measles. Things get crazy and confused. The laugh track prompts the television audience exactly when to laugh.  And the audience does as they are told. They laugh in all the right places not just because it is funny but because somewhere inside them it feels kind of true.

“Being a stranger in a strange land” was a sure fire formula for sit-com success. After My Favorite Martian came ALF – the furry Alien Life Form from  Melmac with an appetite for cats. 3rd Rock from the Sun debuted in 1996 with a house full of  extraterrestrials disguised as a college professor, a curvaceous military expert, and a teenager. And of course, there was the hilarious 1970’s series — Mork and Mindy.

Mork, from stardust he came, to stardust he returns.

Mork – the world of course knows – was played by the manically comic and the manically gifted Robin Williams. And on August 11th of 2014, the world was stunned to learn that Mork had died by his own hand. After battling a lifetime of depression and addiction, he succumbed to the darkness.  Mork hung himself quite literally from a metaphorical tree, the frame of his bedroom door. And the whole world wept for the loss of this amazing man who never failed to make us laugh.

So how could this possibly be? He was hilarious. He was happy. He was a comedian beyond compare. He was “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Patch Adams”. He was our ever-shining star of stage and screen.

But even stars run out of fuel. Even stars implode. Even stars turn dark.

Mork’s mood disorder – likely bipolar disorder  — was the demon that plagued him most of his life. Depression and its companion mania are commonly misunderstood. Happiness and sadness are ordinary human emotions. They ebb and flow with the ups and downs of everyday life and they ebb and flow in  us all.

But different in kind are the moods that manifest themselves in the heights of mania and in the depths of. depression. It’s not about being happy or sad; it’s about the size of your universe. On the up side you are exploring the galaxy with Captain Kirk. On the downside you can barely climb out of your black hole.

Barely is the operative word. While those who live with depression struggle to get out of bed —  they, in fact, regularly do. The effort it takes  to change out of your pajamas can be painstaking. Brushing your teeth can feel like a burden.

And yet — even so — depressed folks get to work on time. Depressed folks work hard and get promoted. Depressed folks run companies. Depressed folks run marathons. And depressed folks also run like crazy to escape their depression. Depressed folks are very good at disguise. Depressed folks are marvelous actors. They have to be.

And this is how a star implodes. Every last little bit of fuel is exhausted. Every energy source is completely depleted – be it physical, spiritual, or emotional. And you are Lost in Space. The universe may be expanding but so does the void within you. You have absolutely nothing left. Today is an unthinkable burden and the thought of tomorrow is unbearable. And you go to bed not wanting to wake up anymore.

You believe yourself a “foreigner and a stranger on earth….looking for a country of your own” (Hebrews 11:13-14) A country not of this world.

People tell you to be patient; that the pain will subside; the crisis will pass. But you do not believe them. How could they possibly know if they haven’t suffered so? You just want it to be over, now and forever more. So in the depths of despair people take their own lives. In the U.S. more than 47,000 people in 2017 died at their own hand. 23,851, virtually half, by firearms.

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There is no greater taboo – than suicide — a taboo that sorely needs to be brought out into the open and talked about.

Difficult as it may be, we need  to speak this truth in love. When we believe a loved one, family member, coworker or friend is thinking of hurting themselves  — we need to ask them just that. With compassion and concern: “I am worried about you. I have noticed (whatever you have noticed) and I want to ask if you are you thinking about hurting yourself?

It’s a myth that discussing and naming a loved one’s suicidal thoughts — puts these thoughts into their heads. Not true. Directly asking a person whether they are thinking of suicide can save that person’s life. Mentioning it out loud can be an enormous relief. Mentioning it out loud allows your loved one to name and claim the demons that haunt them.

If your loved one answers yes – or if you believe the answer is yes — then call 911. Stay with them until help arrives. Don’t be afraid to appear foolish or wrong. You cannot diagnose your friend but you can perform first aid, call an ambulance and get them to  professional help. And if you need help finding the words — sign up for Mental Health First Aid.

In ages past, the Church classified  suicide a mortal sin, denied the dead burial in sacred ground, and condemned the sinner to the fires of hell. Christianity was not alone in its error.

Historically in Judaism, suicides were also segregated in cemeteries and the dead buried with lesser rites. Islam views suicide as the gravest of sins and anathema to eternal life. Muhammad says that anyone who throws themself down from the mountain will eternally be falling into the depths of hell. For Hindus, suicide violates the code of “ahisma”, the code of non-violence and one who takes their own life will forever wander the earth as a ghost.

Blessedly for Christians  — and believers of other kinds —  this theology is mostly no more. But old beliefs die a hard death. Its seems virtually beyond belief that anyone could still believe in such a cold-hearted god – a god so devoid of compassion. But people still do. So  —  biblically speaking  — let me speak to the matter of suicide and how God decides the disposition of our souls.

Frederick Buechner writes: Saul may have fallen on his own sword; Judas may have hung himself from a tree. Out of the depths of despair, both may have condemned themselves to hell. But God did not.

God  understands the depth of despair because  God himself has been there. Our God knows what it is like to lose his own life — to be emptied with nothing left to give. God knows what it is like to lay down his life and to lift it up again. That the whole world would taste and see that God is good.  Be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Scientologist, Wiccan, Agnostic, Atheist, Romulan, Vulcan, Klingon, Earthling, or none of the above.

We may be lost in this space and in this time, but lost to God — NEVER.

At least, that’s the God I believe in. And It’s the same God I believe that Episcopalian Robin Williams believed in, as well.

From stardust he came. To stardust he returned..  All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Nanu! Nanu!


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Creator of the Stars of Night

Once upon a time, a generation or two ago, before we landed on the moon, Cape Kennedy was Cape Canaveral – home to NASA – the National Air and Space Administration  (if you need me to spell it out:-)).

When I was a kid, periodically we got to swap out our spelling books for something far more exciting. Sister Inez Patricia would wheel a little black and white TV into the classroom — 1960’s technology at its finest. Sister would fiddle with the horizontal and vertical controls – and the rabbit ears (remember those!) to get the picture just right.

Our little third grade eyes would be glued to screen as we listened to the countdown on the launch pad. 10, 9, 8, 7,6,5,4,3,2,1,0. BLASTOFF!

Off blasted John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. Off blasted Apollo mission after Apollo mission until that incredible day when Neil Armstrong set his boots down on the surface of the moon.

One small step for man. One giant step for mankind.

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 And on those same little TV screens in 1966, Star Trek premiered. Captain Kirk, First Officer Spock and crew set out on their five-year mission to “go boldly (and in technicolor) where no man had gone before.” The Star Trek crew blew our collective imaginations as they traveled through interstellar space. Galactically romping around the Milky Way of the millions and billions of stars.

The stars declare his glory, the vault of heaven springs

Mute witness of the Master’s hand in all created things.

And through the silence of space, their soundless music rings.

(para. Psalm 19, T. Dudley Smith)

When was the last time you gazed up at the stars?

Sadly, stargazing is nearly impossible under the artificial light pollution of our urban skies. But maybe you have gotten a chance to steal a glance on a starry-starry night. Maybe out in the country or up in the mountains. Maybe at Shrine Mont.

On this Feast of the Trinity, I invite you to turn your eyes to the skies  – heavenward. And behold the handiwork of the Holy One, the Creator of the stars of night. That we may discover – or possibly even recover – the experience of what it feels like “to be born from above.”

Alan Lightman, an astrophysicist, in his book Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine tells the story of how he took out his little skiff onto the water in the dead of night. He writes:

 I turned off my running lights…I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world dissolved into the star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity…I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time….from the time before I was born and into the far distant future after I will die – seemed compressed to a dot…I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a great and eternal unity,  a hint of something absolute.

 Something, someone we Christians call God, Creator of all that is seen and unseen – the divine first person of the Three Person  and singular God. The God we confess week after week in the Nicene Creed.

In Lent of 2014, I took up a rather unorthodox spiritual discipline. Rather than walking the Way of the Cross, I went in search of my Creator, the ground of my being.  I am not much of a contemplative. I don’t have the discipline to read the Daily Office. And being an extrovert, I am allergic to silent retreats. But as a bibliophile, I am all about living into the Great Commandment: to love the Lord our God, with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength….but especially with all my MIND.

So instead of cracking open a Bible, I cracked open the Book of Creation – with more than a little help from a little trinity of astro-evangelists: Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, and Neil de Grasse Tyson.

I read Kaku’s Einstein’s Cosmos: How Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time. Along with my daily prayers, I made daily online visits to Brian Greene’s World Science U – and got sixty-second -plain-English answers to my questions about the mysteries of the universe. And on the Lord’s Day, I would tune into PBS for a liturgical hour — to watch an episode of Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey.

I am not sure how much I actually learned science wise. I would ceratinly need to study up if I had to take an exam. But this little discipline definitely deepened my awe and expanded my sense of wonder in God’s universe (or it multiverse?)

Much like my awe and wonder were expanded all those years ago by John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong and Captain Kirk.

And this Trinity Sunday precedes Memorial Day Monday.

So, it seems to me to be both a right and a good thing to remember with gratitude those cosmic pioneers – who risked their lives to explore our solar system and the mysteries of space. For all the astronauts whose rigor and training, intelligence and dedication were given for a higher purpose.  And especially for the fallen heroes of American space flight: the 1967 crew of Apollo I, the astronauts of the  Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, the 2003 explorers on the  Space Shuttle Columbia.

 Let’s give thanks to God for all brave and bold enough to shoot for the stars, fly to the moon, and maybe even travel to Mars. Let’s give thanks to God for the gift of wonder and awe and joy in all the Creator’s works. And most especially let us praise the beloved Name  of the First and Foremost Person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

The stars declare his glory.

JoaniSign