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Hope is Coming

How much hope is enough? I understand and experience hope to be “leaning into better.” Hope is trusting that as things change, good will come. When we are hopeful, we lean into things getting better, not worse.

Is hope a precious natural resource? Is there a limited amount of hope in the world that we need to carefully monitor? Or is hope a renewable energy, like the wind?

What if hope is sourced from a divine energy, limitless and eternal? Hope never runs out. The supply is unlimited.

We live in a time of a “scarcity culture” says social scientist Brene Brown. A culture of scarcity is where we live in fear of not having enough. If she’s right, then this mentality of scarcity is impacting our national supply of hope. We feel as if we are running low on hope. And too many of us are flat running out of it. Our hope gauge is on empty.

In my conversations with people of all ages, economic, educational, gender, ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, I hear their stories about struggles with finding hope. The topic of conversation is mental illness specifically, and how we’ve all come to know its impact intimately on our lives. Almost every time the tragedy of suicide is unearthed, along with it is this profound sense of hopelessness.

From listening deeply and seeking to understand from the heart, I’ve come to believe that hope is the very thing that can save us. Without hope, all life ends. 

Why do some have hope while others do not? When it comes to suicide, it is one way a person can take action to end pain when there seems to be no hope remaining. No hope of getting better, no hope of recovery, no hope of healing, no hope of being forgiven and loved.

How did hope become so finite and limited? Has our culture of scarcity infected our ability to hope? I believe this flaw in the fabric of our society, the scarcity of hope, is impacting our most vulnerable and is contributing to the highest suicide rates we’ve seen in the U.S. in past three decades. 

What can we do to transform a culture of scarcity? Brene Brown suggests “wholehearted” living. This means taking risks to be our authentic selves and being vulnerable, along with believing that we are enough. 

I will add that we also need more people who are seers, translators, vessels and communicators of hope. Traditionally this has been a sacred and saving role of faith communities and their leaders. Historically the church offered hope as part of its weekly gospel message. Yet with fewer people entering churches, this hopeful word is reaching fewer and fewer people. The real danger here is not the sustainability of the institution of the church, but the communication and distribution of hope into the world. 

We need spaces where we can practice leaning into better, practicing our hope muscles. For a long time, that is what the church provided…what Calvin called “a gymnasium” for the soul.

If hope is a divine, unlimited and eternal resource, then how does it get equally distributed, especially to communities that need it most?
On the other hand, what if we are in a point in time where we are actually running out of hope? Have previous generations used up this precious natural resource called hope? Afterall, we can only lean into things getting better for so long without seeing any significant positive results. 

Perhaps like measuring the level of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, there could be some way to measure the level of despair in the air.

One way to measure the level of despair in a society is by looking at the suicide rate. The statistics on suicide tell us about how much despair is in the atmosphere and which communities are hit hardest. In the U.S., we know that trans youth of color are the most vulnerable to the toxicity of despair. We have counted the dead and the dead do not lie…they have the highest suicide rate. 

What does hope, leaning into better, look like for trans youth of color? This is not only important for the sake of saving trans lives, it’s the salvation of the world that is at stake. Living in a world where trans youth are systemically hopeless is not the kind of world we want for our children, is it? If children are dying from despair, what does that say about us, and our society?
How can we cultivate hope with and for people who, driven by despair, are planning to die by suicide? 

Is spreading hope enough to save lives? I think it’s worth a try. 

Getting more hope into the air is what we all need in order to breathe…in order to live free. Can we create hope-turbines or hope-mills? Or how about hope-panels on our rooftops? In a Dr. Sueuss world, perhaps such hope could be manufactured. But we live in this world that we’ve each helped to create. We need real solutions, hope that we can stand on.

Hope is believing in change for the better. We need one another if real and lasting change is to come.

Things can and will get better. Despair is not forever.

You are loved.

You are forgiven.

Your life is valuable.

You are enough.

Hope is on the way. 

Hold on. Hope is coming.
 

Mental Illness and the Face of Christ

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. 

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.