“The Scream” on Christmas Eve

This Christmas Eve the painting, “The Scream” comes to mind. In “The Scream,” Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch depicted a figure who is visibly pained, the person is holding their hands beside their head and apparently screaming. Of course, as viewers of this haunting image we can’t literally hear the iconic scream, but we can imagine that the scream comes from deep within.

For highly sensitive people who feel, hear, think and experience life differently, moments crafted to illicit joy can turn into what seems like an eternity of anguish. As a mother of a highly sensitive child, about five minutes into the Christmas Eve worship service at church, we discovered that the worship service was too loud for him.

The sanctuary pews were packed, extra chairs lined the back wall and outside freshly fallen snow glistened all around. This picture perfect Christmas Eve inspired singing from the gut. Christmas hymns accompanied by the organ and brass quartet filled the sanctuary, reverberating off the walls, creating a festive spirit of joyful celebration and anticipation.

Yet next to me on the pew my child was curled up screaming. Like the Munch figure in the painting, he looked pained, had his hands covering his ears and he was yelling. But I couldn’t hear him. The Trumpets. The Organ. The soprano in front of us in the red and white striped sweater dress. It was all too much. My heart broke. We attended this church regularly and yet this service with all its goodness was not good for my son. While my husband stayed in the sanctuary, I took our son out of church.

Holding his hand, we squeezed through the crowds during the second hymn and ducked out the back and left the worship service through the side door. We found a quiet room with a couch, a green pen and white paper. After some more tears of frustration he quieted down and began drawing. In this room adjacent to the sanctuary we could hear the angels singing, the organ, and the trumpets, yet these sounds were muted. The scream was silenced.

He wanted to go home. My husband and I wanted to stay. So we negotiated that we would re-enter the service for communion and the lighting of the candles at the very end of the worship service. So after 45 minutes of waiting in the room, I heard over the speaker system the pastor’s invitation to the table. And in those words she said that the meal Jesus shared was for all of us.

Part of me felt disappointed and frustrated not to be in the sanctuary for the worship service. Yet I decided to not dwell in resentment or feel sorry for myself, but to turn my energy and focus to my child who needed compassion and support. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder what do other people do who are highly sensitive. I couldn’t help but wonder how, despite our best intentions, to create worship that is more welcoming and inclusive. Why did this worship environment make him scream?

I love my child and I love my church. I love the community of love, justice, hope and peace that church creates. So I find myself this Christmas wondering how we can honor the Christ who comes to us in a highly sensitive child. How can church be a safe, welcoming and inclusive place for us all, especially for children (and all ages) with special needs? Are there churches who have already figured this out and provide family worship experiences that are sensitive to how loud sounds can be overwhelming, uncomfortable, and even painful?

Is it fair to ask churches to consider adapting their worship services for the wellbeing of a small minority? I don’t think that the answers are simple or easy. And I don’t think the answer is that kids and families like mine should just stay home and not go to church.

Perhaps as parents we should take more responsibility. We have sound canceling headphones that we bought for this very reason. He has used them in church before. Yet we forgot to bring the headphones because he hasn’t needed them in church for at least a year. We thought he had gotten better. We didn’t think about the brass quartet on Christmas Eve.

Perhaps just as we’ve come to expect health related warnings for flashing lights for people with various health challenges, we could identify services that have a certain threshold for volume level. What if we began to pay attention to this reality in our churches?

We left church after the Christmas Eve worship service was over to find the quiet snow still falling and it was peaceful. At home we made a special dinner, exchanged presents by the Christmas tree, and then sat by the fireplace reading books, doing crossword puzzles and playing with Legos. I was glad for my son’s happiness. He was no longer screaming. All was calm and all was bright. God’s tenderness has arrived again and it is good.

Now it is the day after Christmas and I am already wondering: what about next year? What about the other families like mine?

Testimony of Tears

Sometimes the tears are the testimony. Sometimes the levels of pain are so deep that our words can only convey so much and the tears come. In the silence, the tears speak for us. In the tears, God is made flesh and weeps from within us.

As spiritual communities we find our meaning through the connections and relationships we nurture with each other and with God. Going deeper in our sense of being present to each other in the midst of suffering is part of the power of the testimony of tears. Last week my church held its first Blue Christmas service. The service was born out of a desire to create a space at church during the weeks leading up to Christmas where we could bring all of our tears without apologizing in a season where society commercializes joy.

So we named our tears, we blessed our tears and we called them holy. We named our tears: heartbreak for children who live with mental illness, anger for women who are harassed and abused, and lament for people like Venus who die too young because of our nation’s broken healthcare system that neglects the most vulnerable in society.

We named our tears in the silence. We took salt rocks and collectively placed them in a bowl of water on God’s altar. We witnessed the testimony of tears.

We gave God back our tears. We prayed for God to hear our cries, to hear our testimony and to transform our tears. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God is the potter and we are the clay. God uses our tears to wet the cracked clay vessels that we have become in our brokenness. Because of our tears, we can be restored and reformed. Without our tears, we would dry up and crack apart. God the potter works with our tears, integrating them back into our very being.

The testimony of tears makes possible our healing. No need to be ashamed or embarrassed of the tears. Let the tears flow…for in each tear holds the power of God made flesh. Divine love dwells in the tears. Tears, both hot and messy, are holy and designed for wholeness.

This is the testimony of tears. It is for the healing of children, women and Venus. It is for the healing of the nations.

Depression: It’s Real for Pastors, Too

Pastors are women and men who dedicate their lives to two main things: (1) proclaiming and teaching freedom through the power of God’s love and (2) caring for others through acts of compassion, justice and mercy. Yet pastors too often suffer in silence and isolation from common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

It almost makes it worse that the very people who provide care for so many in their times of greatest need, are the very people who often cry out in a void, often feeling like there are few safe places to share their pain and get help.

Even if a pastor wanted to get help, they often do not have adequate health insurance to pay for mental health care, or access to mental health professionals and find it difficult, like many people, to financially prioritize expensive therapy appointments and or prescription medications.

Busy schedules, often filled with unexpected demands, leave pastors with little down time or a day off. There is still the expectation that pastors are available 24/7, so the brain of a pastor never truly rests, part of it is on high alert, even in the dead of night, for that text or call about a death in the church. This consistent lack of deep rest, combined with compassion fatigue from the relentless care of others, create hazardous conditions for pastors to maintain good mental health hygiene.

Even with the incredible toll pastoring takes, the great sacrifices one suffers, it is still a vocation many feel called to follow. There are many intangible rewards and inexplainable satisfactions that come with being a person who is a pastor. At the same time, we do not fully understand or acknowledge the significant toll of pastoring over time on a person’s mental health. More research needs to be done to get a full sense of the picture. Yet, from what I am hearing in the circles of pastors that I engage in, it does not matter if you are fresh out of seminary or have been pastoring for decades, depression and anxiety continue to be present in pastors lives and it’s as common as the liturgical calendar.

Worst is that we are still fearful to talk about it. Because: Shame. Stigma. Fear. There are so many unknowns: will I still be considered fit for ministry? Will I still be a good pastor? Will I lose my credentials? Will I lose my church? Will I lose the people’s respect? Will I get to be a pastor? Will I get better? Will I find my joy again?

Depression and anxiety already take away so much from life, it is painful to even consider what more it could take away. And for pastors, there is a real fear that a publicly known mental illness diagnosis, even one as common and treatable as depression, could either negatively effect or even end their vocation.

Part of the problem is us. We don’t know how to heal the healer. Our society doesn’t say it’s okay for the doctor to need a doctor. We have experts and people who are suppose to know everything, heal everyone, including themselves, never get sick and never get sad. It’s their job, we say, to heal and save us….so who is thinking about and working on healing and saving them?

Let’s be honest. We take our pastors for granted. We don’t appreciate the sacrifices they make on a daily basis. We don’t know what it’s like to carry the burdens they carry. We don’t do enough to ensure that all pastors have access to affordable, accessible and quality mental health care.

One of the simplest things we can do to help pastors is to recognize and accept the fact that they are human. And as humans in a highly and uniquely demanding vocation, they most likely are experiencing some level of anxiety and or depression on a fairly regular basis.

This anxiety and depression is most likely on a spectrum in terms of severity, and it could be mild most of the time with high levels of daily functioning. Yet, it’s always there right under the surface. And in holiday seasons, like Christmas and Easter, these anxieties and waves of depression often increase for pastors. There are tremendous highs and lows, fears and worries, so many impossible expectations and endless lists of things to do. It can be immobilizing.

And yet. There is also the pastor who has support from people who offer grace and permission, support and resources, for the pastor to have what I call small “mental health mercies.”

So here are five things you can do right now to help improve the mental health of the pastor you know and care about:

Mental Health Mercy #1: Share words of encouragement, it doesn’t have to be long. Send a text, email or card in the mail that says “thank you for all you do.” Make sure your pastor hears these words every day. Secret: Many pastors feel undervalued and unappreciated. Depression makes you feel worthless.

Mental Health Mercy #2: Encourage and reward the pastor for taking weekly time off, where she is not expected to be responsible for any pastoral duties, except emergencies. Remind the pastor how important it is for her to rest, to play, to enjoy life and how her days off make her a better pastor. Secret: Many pastors feel guilty for taking a day off. Anxiety makes it hard to let things go and difficult to stop the “monkey mind.”

Mental Health Mercy #3: Advocate for your pastor to be compensated fairly so she can afford quality mental health care. Create a special fund for the pastor’s wellbeing, to be used at the pastor’s discretion for activities that contribute to wellness. Secret: Many pastors cannot afford the fees to see a therapist or spiritual director. So instead of getting badly needed help, they grow more and more depressed.

Mental Health Mercy #4: Normalize the spectrum of mental health in your church by speaking out loud about it. Educate yourselves about brain health. Breaking the silence about mental illness is a powerful way to get people talking. Secret: It still feels too risky for many pastors to openly talk about mental illness. Other people in the church can begin the conversation, it doesn’t have to be the pastor who gets the conversation started.

Mental Health Mercy #5: Shower your pastor with reminders of God’s grace. Chances are good that she has had a bad day this week. What would it look like to shower her with God’s grace? A gift card? Cancel an extra meeting? Volunteer to help? Flowers? Chocolate? Take time to consider what brings hope and joy to your pastor. How can you share these small things in everyday ways that reminds your pastor that she, too, is a child of God. Secret: Many pastors feel unworthy and inadequate. Episodes of depression and anxiety only worsen the pastor’s self esteem.

Small mental health mercies can go a long way. Lord knows, our pastors need them. Lord knows how much we love our pastors. Let’s show them how much we care for them.

So many pastors struggle with depression and/or anxiety. Let them know that it is okay, they are not alone. God is with them and the church is, too.