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         Mental Illness
                    & Spirituality

‘Out of the depths

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(Continued from previous page: Psalm 88 - Commentary Part 1)

That does not negate our need to complain to God. One-third of the psalms are laments. Crying out to God with your complaints in difficult times is evidence of faith, not a lack of faith. I picture a toddler in God’s arms wrestling, struggling, and complaining—all the while being held. “God, I don’t like this. I don’t understand why. When will my life move forward again?” Because God holds me, loves me, and will not let me go, I can be brutally honest with God.

We can be honest with God, but now, can we be honest with one another? Do we need to appear to be a heroic Christian who triumphs over every adversity and in every adversity? If I only try a little harder, have a little more faith, then I won’t be depressed, I won’t hear voices, I won’t forget things. People with mental illness can torture themselves with such heroic Christian thoughts. And sometimes well-meaning people inflict the pain. They say things like: “Just keep praying. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. I was depressed once and I eventually got over it.” I am suspicious of their understanding and their faith. We wouldn’t say the same thing to a diabetic, someone with cancer, or heart disease. If a person’s kidney can be ill, a person’s brain can also be ill or have a disorder that affects his thinking, her mood, behavior and personality.

If we are friends of Jesus, then how can we be friends with people who experience mental illness, and friends with people who love someone with a mental illness? Remember these three words, Listen, Accept and Pray.

Henry Nouwen says we need “poverty of heart,” and “poverty of mind.” Rather than assuming I am rich with insight to offer and the ability to fix things, I must assume that I am poor. Instead of being a teacher when I help, I am the student. This will help us deeply listen.

I often pray for elephant ears and use these three words: “Help me understand; help me understand what it is like to have a child in the hospital. What is it like to know you have cancer? What is it like to lose a spouse?” Even though I know what it is like to lose a father, I don’t know what it is like for this person to lose her father, or his spouse.

What can the person experiencing a mental illness teach us so that we can understand and love them more profoundly? Let them tell their story. Gently ask questions because you love them, have a relationship with them, and want to understand—not because you are nosy. Ask, what can I do that would be helpful or supportive? Let them be the experts. And if you are the one with the illness, find someone you trust and feel safe with, someone that can transform your experience of the illness.

Secondly, accept them. Mental illness still bears a stigma in our society and in the Christian community. Accept the person and where he is at. Don’t define her by her illness. He or she is a person with schizophrenia, with Alzheimer’s or autism, but he is not his disease. Celebrate and use her gifts and strengths. Catch yourself when you have a thought that stigmatizes someone who has a mental illness or any disability. God’s name is on them.

I’d like to say a word too about people with mental illness that does not heal. People with a chronic mental illness often lose contact with friends and family. And sometimes family and friends abandon the person. It is difficult sometimes to be in relationship with a person with mental illness. Sometime ago I performed a memorial service for a woman who lived in an adult foster care facility for persons with mental illnesses. Her illness began while she was in college. She had a Dutch name. As we gathered at the funeral home, only staff and residents remembered her. There were no family, no friends, no church family present. How might the family and church family empowered one another to be an abiding presence throughout this woman’s life?

The temptation is to be judgmental, critical, and impatient. If only this person would try harder, if only she didn’t think this way, then she would be free of her mental illness. Psychiatric illnesses are complex and not easy to treat, and they’re not easy to cope with.

Listen to us. Accept us. And finally, pray for us. Even though I was an elder in the church, a leader in a ministry organization, I did not hide my illness of depression. It might have been more comfortable, but it only would have increased my isolation and eventually the shame. It humbled me to ask my church family to pray for me. Many people prayed for me daily.

When you pray with someone, a powerful They prayed for me when I could not pray. Never underestimate the power of a card, a prayer, a phone call or visit. The impulse you feel may be God’s perfect timing.way to be with them is to lament. “God, we don’t understand why my friend hears voices and struggles with harmful thoughts. She is in such agony and we cry out to you for her health and wellbeing. Hear our prayer, O God, hear us.”

When I could not pray, I used the psalms of lament and songs. Psalm 30 gives voice to my deepest despair and to my trust in God. One friend said to me when I was in deep despair, “Cindy, we will carry the hope for you.” That is the power of living in Christian community. We live in relationship with Jesus Christ, and through Christ, we live in relationship with one another.

Dear friends, the suffering of mental illness and other tragedies is real. But Jesus is our friend, and he is present in the darkness. As friends of Jesus, we are called to be present with others, and we are called to carry them to Jesus.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, be a friend to all who are hurting, to all who long to be close to you, and to all who long for someone to love and listen to them. Bless the friends of Jesus present here as they risk being open, as they risk loving in new ways. In Jesus’ name, Amen.