Category Archives: Family

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.

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?

Separating Immigrant Families is un-Christian!

How can anyone look at pictures of their own children and think separating immigrant families is right?

In the wake of news about separating immigrant families at the U.S./Mexico border in recent weeks, the silence from Trump’s evangelical advisory board as children are being ripped from their parents’ arms has been deafening.  Pastors have a Christian duty to hold Jeff Sessions and his boss to account, especially in the wake of Sessions’ claim that Romans 13 supports such abject cruelty.

In fairness, some conservative religious leaders are speaking out.  Franklin Graham, surprisingly, said in an interview last week with the Christian Broadcasting Network, “I think it’s disgraceful; it’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.” However, he rendered his criticism impotent in the next breath by saying he still supports Trump and blaming politicians of the last 20 to 30 years for creating the mess that has led to the current policy. Continue reading Separating Immigrant Families is un-Christian!

Letting Go of a Beloved Dog

Something is missing from my writing today. The barrage of daily news still motivates me to open up my laptop. The flames in the fireplace still match the heat of my anger at the headlines in the newspaper. The snow outside my window still reminds me that it’s a good day to stay indoors and write. The cup on the coffee table still fuels me with the caffeine that sharpens my thoughts.

But when I reach for the cup, the difference is clear. No more will I feel the nudge of a cool nose against my fingers insisting I remember to live in the present and not just in the future promise of words at my fingertips.

Our dog Beckley and I had a writing ritual. Continue reading Letting Go of a Beloved Dog

A Tribute to President Obama

An official photo of the First Family by Pete Souza at whitehouse.gov

Of all the things President Obama has done in service to our country, I am most grateful for the model he has been as a husband and a father. Whatever part of his legacy is dismantled by the incoming administration, they cannot take that away from us. He has been a stellar example of what it means to be a good man.

Of all the things he said last night in his farewell address, his tribute to his family will linger in my mind for years to come: Continue reading A Tribute to President Obama

When Our Bustling Democracy Fails Us

bustle

The bustle just didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Eleven days after the most disheartening election of my lifetime, all I wanted to do was to forget for a few hours that democracy hadn’t worked the way I thought it was supposed to either. I wanted to focus fully on the joy of my daughter and her fiancé as they exchanged marriage vows. I wanted the celebration to be perfect.

But the bustle didn’t work. Continue reading When Our Bustling Democracy Fails Us

Love in the Time of Politics

new-familyA funny thing happened on the way to my daughter’s wedding. Well…we haven’t actually gotten there yet. The wedding isn’t until next weekend. But in the four years since she met her fiancé, they have changed the way I view the world.

Born to a Republican father who essentially got to vote twice because he told my mother how to vote, I revolted. I registered as a Democrat as soon as I turned eighteen, though I didn’t tell my father, a man who laughingly informed me that before he would give my husband his blessing, the man would have to sign a paper promising to vote Republican. When Nixon resigned in disgrace a few months after I registered to vote, I became convinced that Republicans represented all that was wrong with the world. Continue reading Love in the Time of Politics

Courageous Conversations about Race and Poverty?

I Voted

“Why do you keep trying to reason with those people?” It is a question I’m asked repeatedly by my liberal friends on social media when I attempt to engage in a discussion with relatives and childhood friends who support Donald Trump.

Why? Because I believe that well-meaning liberals who dismiss the concerns of poor whites and call them ignorant might as well be the warm-up act for the next Trump rally. Our refusal to acknowledge their concerns has helped set the tone for Trump’s stage appearances.

Continue reading Courageous Conversations about Race and Poverty?

Would Christ Turn Marriage Upside-Down?

RingsGeorgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and now Oklahoma. Christianity is under assault. But not in the way that the conservatives in these states who’ve introduced discriminatory laws would say it is. Like the Pharisees Jesus condemned, these Christians stand in the marketplace and loudly proclaim their objections to the actions of those whose behavior is far more Christ-like. Their hypocrisy in the name of religion should be obvious to anyone who seeks to follow Christ’s example.

If Christianity means being Christ-like, then it is under assault. And it is up to those of us who desire to live as Christ lived to show the courage of Christ and call out such hypocrisy just as he did. Continue reading Would Christ Turn Marriage Upside-Down?

Who’s to Blame When Children Fail?

Siblings 1If we ever decide as a nation that none of us have all the answers, my siblings and I could be the poster children for the complexities of educating America’s youth. Born to a father who quit school in fifth grade and a mother who quit school in ninth grade, my sister and I were the first of our paternal grandparents’ 52 grandchildren to graduate from college. Like many parents today, my parents fervently wanted us to have the education they didn’t have, but they had no idea how to make that happen. Continue reading Who’s to Blame When Children Fail?