As I chatted with the church ushers in the sanctuary while they handed out bulletins before worship, we joked that I’d keep my eyes on them to get the signal for when to stop preaching. A gentleman in his eighties smiled and said, “please don’t babble on because then we start squirming in our seats.” As a guest preacher, they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. I smiled and promised to keep my message on point.
The main point of my visit to this particular church was to open conversations about mental illness, family and church, based on my first book Blessed are the Crazy. I’ve learned that when I openly share my story about how my family is impacted by mental illness, it gives other people permission to start to share their stories. Churches are hosting these conversations in sanctuaries and fellowship halls across the country, often partnering with local mental healthcare providers.
On this Sunday in Lent, a time of reflection about the meaning of the cross of Christ, my sermon invited people to “leave shame, stigma and silence at the foot of the cross.” I shared that for too long I carried my shame and its heavy burden crushed my spirit. What freedom and relief my spirit knew when I let go, giving to God that which I could not save.
After worship I stood in the back of the sanctuary by the exit. I felt vulnerable preaching as I did, saying the things from my heart. Yet it must have been God’s Spirit ministering through me. The usher came up to me in tears, hugging me and said, “I could have listened to you for three more hours.” I looked into his eyes and our tears were a communion in themselves.
I encountered other men of the church shedding tears that day, sharing with me how their lives, too, have been touched by grief, suffering, and mental illness. As the tears fell, I whispered, “these are God’s tears, healing tears and they are signs that you are healing. Thank you for sharing them with me.”
My father, whose own death was caused by severe and untreated mental illness, shed tears often when we were together towards the end of his life. He didn’t have the words to say all the things he wanted to say about the pain of a family torn apart, about the missing decades of togetherness, but his tears spoke of his human brokenness and desire for wholeness.
In the cross of Christ we see both the brokenness of this world and the promise of wholeness. In my journey through the valley of the shadow of mental illness, I know that it is there at the intersection of suffering and healing that we can experience real saving grace. In that tearful moment of recognition, the face of Christ is revealed to us.