Tuesday, May 3, 2011

God With Us -- When We Are Most Alone

Being a Pastor means being with people in their worst moments.  Some of those moments have been with families whose loved ones wrestle with mental illness.  There are those within my own extended family who battle the same encroaching darkness of deep depression, high anxiety, compulsive behaviors, bi-polar and the whole realm of psychotic disorders.  Later this week I will be with a family as they lay to rest a loved one whose own battle with mental illness finally extracted its ultimate cost -- a death chosen instead of life endured.

There was a time when I was young and convinced that DuPont had it right -- better living through chemistry.  A pill or a treatment and then it will be all better.  Now I am wiser though this wisdom was born of the painful lesson that it will not all be better and sometimes to endure is its own major victory.  I realize now that pills can help but often help little and that therapy can help but often helps little and that prayer can often seem empty for those accustomed to hope that is crushed by disappointment.  I am wiser but the cost of this wisdom is the realization that so often those with mental illness are treated differently than those with physical ills.  This wisdom has taught me that those with mental illness are kept at arms length when the physical ills would invite embrace, understanding, and sympathy.  So often people hide mental illness not because of shame (though certainly that can enter in) but because they are treated so badly by the very folks they count on for love and support.

The Church struggles with knowing what to do with those who face such ills that pills cannot mend and therapy cannot repair -- the ills that flow from a broken and wounded spirit.  Whether chemical imbalance or the conflagration of stress, anxiety, and fear, the reality is that we pray for and rush to help those with physical illness while often having little clue what to say or what to do for those among us who wrestle with mental illness and for their families.  It is better, yes, but it is still different.

I have read the stories of families who cried out in pain and loneliness just wishing their children or spouses had cancer because then the world would understand, their friends would rush to their aid, insurance would cover without question, and they would benefit from the united prayers of their brothers and sisters in Christ.  Instead, the mental illness borne by them or their family members has left them isolated, wounded, bleeding, hopeless, and fearful of the future.

Not knowing what to say is understandable.  We often do not know what to say to a myriad of situations faced by Christians -- from job loss and poverty to terminal illness to family break ups... But one of the most heart wrenching stories I have ever read comes from one suffering from a bi-polar condition whose life and faith have found comfort from the fact that God is there even in his weakness.  At the end of this wonderfully honest and heart wrenching story he wrote:

Though my illness persists, I have finally met the God I had heard about but never truly experienced. A God who heals. A God who loves. A God I cannot logically explain to my psychiatrist. A God who manifests his genius by salvaging good from the evil in our lives. Someone unlike me. Someone unlike the well-meaning inquisitors who judged me and sought to spiritually cure me. Someone I never would have discovered without my affliction.  A God who calls himself Emmanuel—God with us.

Christianity Today is to be commended for publishing it and I would urge you to read his story called God of the Schizophrenic.  Read it and think about those within the circle of your family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and church family who suffer from one form of mental illness or another.  Read it and pray for them and their family members.  Read it and consider you can reach out to them in love and support and speak the comforting word of God's presence to them in their wounds and need.  Read it and make sure that the Church is a healing place not only for those with physical ills but for those with wounded spirits.  Read it and make sure that the love and loving support we provide for those with physical illness is also provided to those with mental illness.  Read it and rejoice in the God who visits our wounds with His presence and whose grace is sufficient even when healing and wholeness awaits our heavenly reward. 


Jacob Andrews said...

Thank you for this post. When I was in grade school, I struggled with very deep depression caused by some medicine I took (for another mental illness, ironically). Mental illness runs in my family. Also, I help out at my church's ministry at a nursing home where most of the people are mentally disabled. The biggest thing I've learned through all of that is that no one is outside of God's love.

Sue said...

Great post and link. There is a man who is schizophrenic who comes to my church - nice, gentle man - about 59 years old, has lived in a group home since he was about 31. Life must be such a struggle for him, but there he is, every Sunday. He's made friends with people who have reached out to him and finally feels comfortable talking to folks.

Another member of my church has a son who is bipolar. (He's about 63.) I admit that I am afraid of him so definitely keep him at arm's length. He was coming into my office for quite a while about a year or so ago (fortunately he didn't remember I worked there, or at least never asked for me). Management came close to banning him from the building because of his behavior. Our Thrivent agent got a restraining order to prevent him from coming to her office. He broke into his ex-wife's house and raped her. He was off his meds and quite scary for a long time. He's back on the meds now and much calmer, but still comes off in a way that's hard to describe that makes me want to keep my distance.
It's so hard to reach out to people like that - your sole thought is getting away and protecting yourself. I guess what I'm saying is some mentally ill people are dangerous, and we probably shouldn't get too close for our own protection. It's so sad, though. I know this guy tries to reach out to God.

Pastor Peters said...

Sue, there are wicked who are mentally ill and there are wicked who are not. They do not go together. It has been my experience that those afflicted with mental illness are generally harmful only to themselves. I do not say this to diminish your experience but to point out that this man's behavior is found in those who do not carry a diagnosis. Be careful about using this experience to shape your estimation of all people with mental illness...

Sue said...

Thank you - I appreciate that point of view - I hadn't thought of that.