Mental Illness and the Manger 

We are doing something new for our family this year. Thanks to a gift from my son’s Godmother, for each day of Advent, my six year old is hearing parts of the Christian story. Recently, the tiny ornament sized book titled “The Manger” told about the time long ago when a kind innkeeper led a desperate and anxious young couple to a manger in Bethlemhem. I appreciated the storyteller’s interpretation and description of the innkeeper as “kind” because I had grown accustomed to imagining a rude and uncaring innkeeper pointing a crooked finger outside toward an inhospitable barn. It was kindness that made the now classic nativity manger scene possible, not ugliness. 

What does it mean that God’s son was born in a manger? For me, it means that God’s greatest gift comes to us because of kindness and hospitality. Mary gives birth not in a dusty ditch or in a busy market, but within the shelter of a stranger’s kindness. 

Living with a mental illness is kind of like being born in a manger. It doesn’t make you less of a child of God. Whether you have a mental illness now or will have one later (50% of all people will have a mental illness in our lifetime), whether you were born in a bed or in a manger, nothing about your life can change the fact that you are the most incredible you that ever existed or ever will. Jesus was born in a manger and he was the son of God. 

People with disabilities are often told that there is no room at the inn. My brother, who is on disability caused by his severe bipolar disorder, had to wait for weeks for a room at the psychiatric care facility.  He’s also had to wait for days in the emergency room waiting for a bed on the psychiatric floor of a hospital. Too many times people experiencing a mental health crisis are told there is no room at the inn and there’s no manger in sight. In the best scenarios, when there is no room at the inn, churches become the manger scene, the place birthed out of kindness and hospitality where people along the spectrum of health and ability can come. 

In the manger there is room for disabilities and severe mental illness. There is space for all God’s creatures to gather around together to hear the first cry of God. And with that cry there is also Joseph’s laughter and Mary’s joy. The full range of human emotions explodes at the time of birth.

Christmas invites us to bring our whole selves to the manger: mental illness and all. In the wildness of that space, God shows up in human form. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we can’t help but notice how we are caring for those born into the world. Where will God be welcomed? Where will healing be found? 

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