Mental Illness and the Church

Churches aren’t very good at addressing—or even acknowledging—mental illness.

Neither is our country, of course.  Those fortunate enough to find their way to a good therapist—and to have enough money or an insurance policy that covers counseling—have enough of a struggle working through the demons of traumatic experiences. Those who don’t?  We see the results every day on the news—murdered co-workers, abused spouses and children, suicides, and more.

We have work to do as a country, as experts point out every time there’s another mass shooting.  Since Friday’s massacre in Virginia Beach, almost every news story speculates about what might have led the shooter to open fire on his colleagues.

But the Church?  Most evangelical churches tell us we just need to pray for the conversion of the tormented, and when that doesn’t work, we write them off as deserving the eternal hell their lives have become.

And progressive churches?  Most of us don’t even acknowledge mental illness in any meaningful way.  Pastors sometimes make connections in sermons about Gospel texts that tell of Jesus casting out demons, but we limit our conversations about the very real demons of our own time to small groups, where anxious family members ask for prayer.

But what do we really do as Jesus’ emissaries on earth to reach out in meaningful ways to people who struggle with depression and anxiety or who have family members who are bipolar or who are addicted to drugs or alcohol?

We tell our stories to those we trust and ask for prayer.  When I told the story of my abusive father to evangelicals in the church of my childhood, I was advised to pray for my father and to testify about Christ to him and, that if that didn’t work, to consider it a privilege to be beaten for the sake of the cross.

I didn’t find much more compassion among more liberal people of faith, however.  I shared with a few of my liberal friends, who came from various faith traditions, that my father had stopped drinking the year I started high school and that he had never abused my mother or me again once he was sober, though his abuses as a drunk left all my siblings and me scarred.

I found out later that a person of faith who is also a staunch liberal and feminist told one of my friends that she just didn’t believe my story—that men who are abusers don’t stop being abusive. This person has devoted her life to giving aid to women in abusive relationships, but she doesn’t have an ounce of compassion for the men who, during their own childhoods, were once the abused children for whom this person shows so much compassion.

We liberals like to think we’re more enlightened than the evangelicals of my childhood.  But how many of us would be understanding of a pastor or a teacher or an elder who shared his or her struggles to overcome the trauma of childhood or admitted to wrestling with depression or anxiety?

I know from talking with such people that they rarely admit their own struggles to the people they are trying to lead. When people in our communities of faith suffer from a physical ailment, such as cancer or stroke, we rush to their aid, making meals, driving them to the doctor, or providing whatever help is needed.

What do we do, though, when a member of our community asks for help because of depression, anxiety, or mental illness? We pray for them, perhaps because we’re not really sure what else to do.

I’ve been reading a book entitled Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church.  The author, Sarah Griffith Lund, is ordained in the United Church of Christ, and she shares how being able finally to share the story of her father and her brother took away some of the power of keeping her story “in the closet.”

What would we progressive Christians do if a pastor stood up in the pulpit and said, “I believe in the power of Christ to heal us, but I’m standing here today to tell you that I’m struggling with depression or anxiety—that part of the reason I’m a minister is that I was drawn to other people who are struggling—but I’m finding that I sometimes wonder where God is when I can’t remember the last day when I was truly happy.”

I hope that we would embrace that pastor, just as he has embraced us when we share struggles with him that we would never admit out loud to others, even in a small group of trusted people.

But I’m not sure we would.  I suspect that we’d question whether that person ought to be in a leadership position.  I hope not, but I fear so.

Would we ask whether members who get a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease should have seen it coming when they have a terrible diet and don’t exercise?  Perhaps it might be a momentary thought, but I doubt that it would keep the congregation from rallying to support those members.

What would we do, though, if a church leader admitted to mental illness and asked for help?  I’m not sure because I’ve never heard a pastor, church leader, or elder admit such a struggle in front of the congregation.  In fact, few of the members who sit in the pews would admit publicly to a diagnosis of mental illness.

The struggle is real.  It exists.  And as long as we pretend it doesn’t, we’ll have priests who are pedophiles, preachers who abuse their wives and children under the guise of discipline, church leaders who struggle in silence to rid themselves of demons, and, tragically, someone we know who walks into a church or office building and opens fire on both colleagues and strangers.

All of these people were once children for whom we would have had compassion.  But somehow, when they cross the threshold into adulthood, we simply expect them to “man up” and move past the trauma that has made them who they are.

Jesus never once passed by such people who needed healing, whether it was physical or mental.  And neither should we.

Am I Good Enough for Heaven?

Tears welling in her eyes, Amy* shared her greatest fear with me: “I worry I’m not good enough to be with her in heaven.”

This was not the first time I’ve heard a woman express such a fear to me.  My own mother clung to life long after she really wanted to live because the religion of her childhood instilled a bone-deep fear that she would be sent to a fiery eternity.

Amy’s fear, however, was the saddest such declaration I’ve ever heard.  She wasn’t afraid of eternal damnation.  She was terrified of eternal separation from her only child, who died at the age of 15 after a car hit her as she was crossing a street on her bike. Continue reading Am I Good Enough for Heaven?

The Sweet Spot of Rachel Held Evans

I argued with a church leader and teacher a few months back about Rachel Held Evans, best-selling author who died tragically last weekend at the age of 37.  I’d recently read her book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, and I suggested it as a book study for our church’s Adult Education Hour.

The church leader, who, like me, is a former evangelical, actually snorted.  “You need to move past evangelical writers.  Some of her work is just silly.  I left those people behind when I was 19.  She needs to get a good therapist and do the same.” Continue reading The Sweet Spot of Rachel Held Evans

Should Northam and Herring Resign?

Where are the black faces in this image from Gone With the Wind? What do we learn from visual images?

If a child is taught, either overtly or unconsciously, that racism is acceptable, is it possible to change?  This seems to me to be the question at the heart of the crisis facing Virginians as they decide how to respond to the revelations this week that Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to appearing in blackface as young adults.

The debate continues to rage more than a week after one or more of Northam’s medical school colleagues, incensed about the governor’s comments on late-term abortions, called media attention to his yearbook page.  Given that his classmates had known about the photograph for 35 years, the release of the photograph seems not to have been done out of any concern that Northam might be racist.  That, in itself, speaks volumes about the culture that gave rise to the photograph.

Opinions on whether Northam should resign are not as black and white as the painted face and the robe in the yearbook picture. Continue reading Should Northam and Herring Resign?

Blood Moons and End Times

Blood moons are spectacular.  We mark our calendars and stay up late to watch them. For some of us, they are magnificent celestial displays with an explanation grounded in science.  But for Christians who read the Bible literally, blood moons are signs that humans are about to face the wrath of an angry God—a signal that the “End Times” are surely upon us Continue reading Blood Moons and End Times

Advent Also Means a Coming into View

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I look back on the first Advent blog I ever wrote—on December 2, 2012—about this watchful time of my faith tradition.  Today this boyfriend is my daughter’s husband and the father of my coming grandchild, which adds a new perspective for me to how we Christians await the coming of a child. But Advent still brings me both joy and an awareness that we could learn much from those whose views of God differ from our own.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I am joyful.  After church my daughter and her boyfriend will join us to cut a live tree, and her friends will join us to decorate the tree and laugh and talk and share a meal and a cup of cheer.  And while I’m mindful of my faith, many of the traditions we share have little to do with the story of that babe’s birth in a manger.  While we share memories of our church filled with the soft light of hundreds of candles on Christmas Eve, many of us would be stumped if asked why we kill a live tree and bring it into the house with such delight or why we leave cookies and milk for the man in the red suit who finds a way into even those houses that don’t have chimneys.

When my siblings and I were children, our mom bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias,adding the annual volume each year, no matter how little money our parents had, to be sure our information never went out of date.  In those white books, embossed with gold print, some of the most worn pages were those that described how people in other countries celebrate Christmas.  So while we grew up in a tiny town in the Appalachian mountains, we knew that we shared this holiday with people in England and Italy and Germany and Denmark—people who seemed far away but close because of our shared enthusiasm for the babe in the manger who promised hope.

Having grown up in a town that was all white and all Protestant, I didn’t encounter a Catholic until I left home for college.  Now I am happily married to a Polish Catholic, and because of those pages in my mom’s beloved encyclopedias, I’ve always had at least a partial understanding of how Catholicism differs from my faith.  The only real stretch of understanding for me was moving from my mom’s and my childhood church’s grape juice tradition to the wine and the bread that embodied the risen Christ.

But I didn’t truly know anyone of a non-Christian faith until I moved to the D.C. suburbs, where my school system closed in September for two Jewish holidays that I knew nothing about. And later, our department hired a Muslim of Pakistani descent, a woman who also knew much more about my faith than I knew about hers.  I quickly learned that my colleagues and friends of other faiths often knew more than most Christians about the holidays we celebrate.  And I know that on more than one occasion, my questions and curiosity revealed a complete ignorance of their faith that must have astonished them.  But I was strengthened in my fight against cancer when a young Jewish woman made me a framed hanging with a tiny scroll and a verse our faith traditions shared.  And my life was enriched when the Muslim woman brought a Pakistani meal for our department and explained as she broke bread with us the significance of each dish.

As we begin this month-long, boisterous celebration of our faith tradition, what would happen if each of us took the time to find out something about the traditions of other faiths?  What if I turned to that Buddhist whose quiet strength is often greater than my own and asked about his meditation practices?  What if I asked an atheist—with genuine curiosity instead of skepticism—how she seeks to understand a world that is often vocal in its rejection of her?

As Twain’s character Huck Finn discovered when he floated down the Mississippi River on a raft with the man Tom, who his culture had taught him was only 3/5 of a human being, we cannot possibly hold to stereotypes when we truly get to know another human being in all the complexities that defy the way we’ve been taught to see them.  Every culture and faith has its villains and its heroes.  But once we see someone up close—and even learn to call him a friend—we learn that the complexities of human beings are far more interesting than the extremes in which we paint them from a distance.

And even if we live in areas that never allow us to know those of other cultures, the Internet has made the world a much smaller place.  I can now see videos—and even chat with—those people in far-away places that I could only read about in my mother’s World Book.  The world is now my book.  And isn’t that much more interesting?

Advent—for Christians, the word means the coming of the Christ. But what if it were also advent—a coming into place or view—where we begin to come to a fuller understanding of what’s best in us all?

What have you gained or learned from someone of another faith?

Kavanaugh and the Virgin Defense

1797 Cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank

“I did not have sexual intercourse or anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter,” Brett Kavanaugh attested, claiming he was a virgin until well after high school in a Monday interview with Fox News’ Martha McCallum.

She followed up by pressing, “So you’re saying that through all these years that are in question, you were a virgin?” Continue reading Kavanaugh and the Virgin Defense

Are Trump Supporters Deplorables?

Almost two years have passed since Hillary Clinton delivered the gift of her “basket of deplorables” speech to her opponent’s campaign, so why do Democrats continue to make the mistake of tossing all Trump supporters into a single category of despicable people?

Little has changed in the way most Democrats view Trump’s base since Clinton gave that speech at an LGBT for Hillary fundraiser in New York City on September 9, 2016: Continue reading Are Trump Supporters Deplorables?

A Rational Abortion Argument?

As an English teacher I became so frustrated with students for being unable to offer a rational abortion argument on either side that I ultimately refused to let them deliver an argumentative speech on any aspect of the issue.

Abortion was the only topic, among a host of complicated issues, which I ever banned when I taught public speaking.  But I didn’t know what else to do.

I told my students when they were choosing topics that they should either avoid topics they couldn’t do justice to in five minutes, or they should narrow the speech to a single aspect of a topic. Most students followed my advice.

One passionate student, however, decided that her view was worth the risk to her grade and decided to tackle the whole of the abortion issue in spite my cautions.  She defied the time limit and argued passionately but irrationally for nearly ten minutes, and at the end of the speech, nearly every student in the class was angry.  Those who disagreed with her arguments were furious.  Those who agreed wanted a class discussion to continue the debate.  And the moderates and rule-followers in class were indignant that I hadn’t stopped the speech at the five-minute mark. Ultimately, that speech convinced no one of anything.

Though I didn’t ban abortion from arguments in writing classes, I did caution my students, as I did about all topics, that when I evaluated arguments, I would read their papers as though I disagreed, whatever their stance, and I promised them I would be as objective as I possibly could in reading their arguments.  This wasn’t always easy, and the top students always wondered how I could give two papers on the same topic an A when they had such divergent views.  I told them that the A arguments were always the ones that showed some recognition of the nuances of the topic.

This wasn’t always easy for me as a teacher, but I felt a responsibility to encourage students to consider all aspects of a topic, using sound sources, and then to allow them the freedom to draw their own conclusions without forcing my own views on them.

But on the abortion issue, I had no good answers for students then, and I have no good answers now for how we can have a civil, intelligent discussion of the nuances that are crucial to this discussion.

Here are two views that I’ve actually heard former students (and adults) at the two extremes say:

  • “Life begins at conception, and all abortion is murder. It should always be illegal, even in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother.”
  • “As long as a fetus is still attached to a woman’s body, it’s a parasite. And if a woman chooses to abort it, that’s her right and nobody else’s business.”

Most Americans don’t espouse either of these views. In survey after survey, a significant majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade, even though most of us couldn’t tell you exactly what the opinion says.  The complete transcript of the majority opinion isn’t easily available online, and many don’t realize that the decision in 1973 seemed to be based on the doctor’s right to privacy, without mention of the rights of women.  In the decision for the 7-2 majority, Justice Blackmun wrote:

The decision vindicates the right of the physician to administer medical treatment according to his professional judgment up to the points where important state interests provide compelling justifications for intervention. Up to those points, the abortion decision in all its aspects is inherently, and primarily, a medical decision, and basic responsibility for it must rest with the physician.

In the years since, some aspects of the decision have been struck down, including the original guidelines for the trimesters at which abortions can be performed.  Yet we continue to discuss this issue in the public arena as if only the two extremes matter.  (A guide to the key aspects of decisions related to abortion can be found at the Chicago—Kent College of Law’s Body Politic Project.)

We live in a country where the majority is supposed to rule, even though recent presidential elections where the Electoral College and the U.S. Supreme Court have ruled for the minority have called that principle into question.

Surveys of citizens’ attitudes about abortion consistently reveal widespread majority support for Roe v. Wade.  In January of this year, before the current uproar about the Supreme Court vacancy, Pew Research reported that 57% of Americans support legal access to abortion, including a wide variety of religious groups. Even among some evangelical denominations, over half of members felt that the law should allow access to some abortions, even if they personally opposed it.

This week, after the announcement of another Supreme Court vacancy, a number of polls are showing even more widespread support for Roe v. Wade.  A Kaiser Foundation poll showed 67% support for the law, including 43% of Republicans.  A Quinnipiac University poll on a variety of issues showed 63% support of the ruling overall, with virtually no gender gap in the results.

So why are we Americans being held hostage to the wishes of a small minority at the extremes of our culture?

In a more perfect union, where the majority does rule, the rights of the minority should be honored.  But since we don’t live in a utopian state where consensus is always possible, where does that leave us?

I never felt good about banning abortion from class discussions.  But I sometimes want to do the same thing in the discussions that are taking place in the public arena.  Even though the people at the extremes are in a small minority, they seem to have the loudest voices, and because they get their information from the most biased media sites, the cacophony they create takes me back to the day a single student with a loud voice held my class hostage for ten minutes.

Right now Roe v. Wade is the best we have.  I was a junior in high school when that decision was made.  I remember well, in the years before, the stories of girls my age who were mutilated or who died at the hands of abortion providers who took their money and destroyed their bodies.

Here is the single lesson I took away from that time:  Wealthy people will take their daughters out of the state or the country to get a safe and legal abortion.  Poor women or girls who are too ashamed to seek help will find a way to have an abortion, even if it may maim or kill them.

Many of the people who protest in front of abortion facilities weren’t born yet when the Supreme Court issued that decision on Roe v. Wade.  A few of them weren’t even an egg in their mothers’ ovaries or a sperm in their fathers’ testicles yet because even their parents hadn’t been born.

Perhaps only when their sisters and daughters and friends die after an abortion in a dirty and dark room will they realize the folly of not having a sensible abortion law.

Is Jesus Being Flogged in the Public Square?

Jesus is being mocked and flogged in the public square this summer.  His attackers, as they were 2000 years ago, are an angry mob that has been whipped into a frenzy by the leaders of the day with the full support of the nation’s leading evangelicals.

Here are just a few of the instances when Christians have acted in distinctly un-Christlike ways in recent months:

  • Immigration officials, acting at the behest of leaders who rationalize cruel policies by citing the Bible, ripped families apart while the evangelical leaders who advised them remained conspicuously silent.
  • A Walgreen’s pharmacist, citing his Christian beliefs, refusedto provide a drug for a woman who had been prescribed the drug to expel a fetus that had died inside her womb.
  • The leaders of a church in Sterling, Virginia advocated abuse of children and used church members’ tithes to start a “racecar ministry” and purchase a collection of expensive motorcycles and cars. They have also been accused of sexually abusing women and girls in the congregation.
  • Evangelical leader Paige Patterson defended his decision to advise women to endure their husbands’ abuse and to pray for them to come to God.
  • Religious leaders who have spent their careers decrying the state of the family and the moral decline of our nation continue to defend Roy Moore, a candidate for Congress who was repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct, including incidents involving underage girls.

The Christian leaders who have condoned these and other acts or who have remained silent in the face of such abuse, including many abuses of people of color, are no better than those who cried out for Christ to be crucified.

I had this realization when I read today’s Gospel Reading from the Daily Common Lectionary from Matthew 20: 17-28. Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to be “mocked and flogged and crucified.”  Even among his followers—who have watched him serve the poor, the lame, the disenfranchised for three years—the possibility of losing him as a leader causes a scramble for power.

In the scene that follows this news, the writer of Matthew tells us that two of the disciples bring their mother to Jesus and that she kneels before him and asks that they be able to sit on either side of him in his kingdom.  It is not an unreasonable request for a mother to make.  If her sons risk dying for him, don’t they deserve something in return?

The other ten disciples are understandably angry when they hear what the brothers have asked.  After all, all of them have sacrificed everything to follow this man. All are equally deserving of any power that comes to them as a result of his movement.

As he’s done so often in his ministry, Jesus uses this as yet another teachable moment.  He points out that they are not like other leaders who have become tyrants over them.  No.  He reminds them, as he’s told them before, “It will not be so among you; whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

Our nation’s founders set up a government that they thought would ensure against tyrants.  But, increasingly, our leaders are acting like tyrants—lying to the people, abusing the disenfranchised, and adding riches to their own coffers.

Where is the Leader who will sacrifice and save us? One would think that Christian leaders who have a public presence would be crying out in the face of injustice. But no.  They, like the chief priests and scribes in this story, have condemned what’s left of Jesus in American Christianity to be mocked and flogged in the public square.

For People Who Don't Know All the Answers