Monthly Archives: December 2015

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? 

When Your Pastor’s Spouse Has a Mental Illness 

The predominate culture in Christian communities of shame and silence about mental illness leads to unnecessary suffering. Today I’m particularly mindful of the stresses on pastors and their families. Christmas and the weeks leading up to it are (apart from Holy Week and Easter) the most stressful times for pastors and their families. Speaking from my own experiences serving congregations for a decade…it is rough. Rewarding, yes! But also uniquely challenging. 

So added to the common stresses of planning and preparing worship for the season of Christmas, pastoral care obligations (which tend to be unpredictable), and leading council and committee meetings and stewardship campaigns. Added to this are the additional dynamics of the pastor’s own family. I’m referring to pastors who are not single, but in a committed relationship such as marriage. 

When a pastor’s significant other lives with a mental health challenge, this creates an additional layer of stressors on the pastor. Yet, often congregations are not informed about this significant issue because the pastor does not disclose this information. The pastor may not think the church needs to know. The pastor may be protecting themselves and their partner from judgement, questions and stigma. The pastor may see no reason for the church to know these personal details.

I wonder, though. I wonder about a Christian culture that allows for such significant dynamics to fly under the radar. I wonder about a church that doesn’t know the whole story. I wonder about a pastor and their partner who are not fully known and accepted by the church.

Is this okay? Is this how we want things to be? I wonder. What would it look like if churches knew that their beloved  pastor had a generalized anxiety disorder and was on medication? What would it look like for a church to know that the pastor’s wife was hospitalized for a psychotic episode once? 

What would it look like for the pastor and the spouse to get support from the congregation and the wider church?

I can tell you more about what it looks like for all this to be silenced, secret and hidden in the shadows of shame and stigma. It looks like burnout for pastors. It looks like overtired and weary pastors. It looks like isolated and depressed pastors. It looks like pastors who wonder if they’ve made the right choices.

It looks like me, who didn’t feel safe  revealing my spouse’s mental health challenge with depression and anxiety to my congregation. I thought doing so would make me look weak, like I was a bad wife. I feared that, for some reason, it was all my fault. I thought we would be judged and ultimately rejected. Sadly, these fears prevented me from living authenticly. Looking back, I realize now that my church would have been understanding and compassionate.

But living with uncertainty and fear is not healthy for pastors or for their families. We can do better. When pastors and their loved ones flourish, then congregations flourish. 

Jesus’ wish for the church is that we may all enjoy abundant life. This is possible for pastors who are supporting a loved one with a mental illness. But pastors cannot enjoy abundant life in ministry alone and apart from authentic relationships. 

How can congregations show support to pastors whose spouse has a mental illness? As with other diseases, it requires special consideration and care. Open and honest conversations in the beginning between pastors and church leaders can lead to a partnership where issues can be shared without fear. 

Given that mental illness is so common (one in five persons will experience mental illness in a given year), it can be safely assumed that either the pastor or the spouse (or family member, such as a child) might live with a mental illness. What is your church prepared to do to support them? Does the church offer them personal or family mental health days as part of their benefits? In these extra busy and stressful holy seasons, is your church making sure that your pastor and their families are well cared for by their flock?

This Christmas season, reach out to your pastor and their family with a symbol of Christian love. A handwritten note of appreciation, a hot meal, or an extra measure of grace when things seem not up to par. Encourage your pastors to take time away from church to renew their spirits. Mental health is so closely tied to our spiritual health. Giving your pastor extra time off after Christmas might just be the best Christmas gift of the year. 

Why Prayer Comes First

A bomb. A suicide bomber. A suicide. A horrific, terrible something happens. And people shaped by religious traditions often respond first with prayer.

This first response of prayer to bad news is not an isolated act, but often the first of many acts in the face of an unknown future. The fact that religious people often ground their activism and advocacy in prayer is a significant part of the fabric of biblical tradition. Stories of prophets, like Moses, in the Bible recount the continuous prayers lifted up to God on behalf of a suffering people.

When tragedy strikes faith communities know the importance of prayer. It is important for three reasons. First, prayer affirms our relationship with God. Second, prayer affirms our relationship with each other. Third, prayer stirs within us hope for the future. 

Prayer is good not because it is magic. Prayer is good because it turns our hearts towards God, the source of peace. Let us never underestimate the power of prayer, like focused rays of sun, to melt away hardened hearts frozen by fear and terror. 

In moments of grave concern when my brother was fighting his mental disease through electroshock therapy, he asked me to pray for him and I did. His treatments were not effective. Did prayer fail us? I choose to believe that the prayers silently whispered in the chambers of the heart succeeded in binding brother and sister close to one another and to God. 

Yes we need to do more than pray. My brother and other people like him who live with intrusive thoughts of suicide need much more than prayer. However, it would be a tremendous step forward if faith communities would pray for people with mental illness. 

As things stand now, where silence about mental illness in the church is the norm, to pray as a faith community for people with mental health challenges would be a radical act. That’s why I believe without a doubt that we need more prayer, not less. Prayer is a positive first step towards raising people’s collective consciousness.