Mental Illness Comes to Church

adult dark depressed face
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s a typical Sunday morning and the people are filing into the worship space at First Church in Some Town, Some State. The music flows, prayers are lifted up, and the Holy Spirit is very much present. The pastor comes up and delivers a well written and well prepared sermon and even throws in some humor to help drive the point home. Perhaps the people look upon the pastor and think that this is a person who has it all together, someone who doesn’t have many problems. Perhaps people in the congregation who are so inclined follow the pastor on social media and enjoy the engagement the pastor provides, the inspirational quotes, and the humorous posts they share. The pastor regularly makes posts about fun things they have done with their family, community events they have attended, church events put on, and such. In the pictures, the pastor is always smiling. Their words are always positive, uplifting, and give not one indication that anything is wrong in their lives. The pastor has it all together, they are among God’s favorites, and there is nothing bad going on.

Or is there?

Just from looking at your pastor, you may not know that they have some internal battles going on, battles that they have faced for up to their entire life. Specifically, they may have an invisible illness that seeks to destroy them, a disease that is raging in their brain and spreads to the entire body. If we knew that this person who did not look sick but actually had a disease such as cancer, we would be quick to encourage them in their treatment. But when the disease is not cancer but some type of mental illness, the reaction is often not as supportive. Many try to hide their struggles and live as normal of a life as possible. With the wonderful medications we have available today, counseling, and other means of psychological assistance most of the time people who struggle are able to live normally. But sometimes, the struggle gets harder. The patient – especially people who are in positions of ministry – dare not cry out for fear of being judged unfit for their position or as somehow not Christian enough. So, they struggle as quietly as possible until one day they get tired of the voices in their head telling them they are worthless, unloved, and a bad pastor. The person becomes so desperate to end this pain and – in their minds – improve the lives of those around them that they consider ending it all by killing themselves. And sometimes, they succumb to this disease and go through it.

This even happens to pastors such as Rev. Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in Chino, CA.

Rev. Stoecklein took his own life last weekend. The Instagram post from Inland Hills Church began to go viral and eventually made its way to my timeline. As I read it, I felt a lot of emotions. Mainly, I felt sadness for the congregation, his wife and children who must now deal with this tragedy, pick up the pieces, and move forward. The second place emotion was fear. Rev. Stoecklein’s suicide hit home for me because, like him, I’m one of the 1 in 6 Americans who struggle with mental illness. For both of us, this illness take on the forms of depression and anxiety, disorders I have struggled with for over a decade.

Why did I feel fear? Because this could have easily have been me.

To be clear, I have never been suicidal and I at least would like to think that if I found myself in that position I would have the wherewithal to cry out for help. Having said that, one thing I have learned from both firsthand experience and from seeing others struggle is that mental illness can make one do strange things. I have had days where I could not get out of bed to even brush my teeth because my mental illness had zapped every bit of motivation from my body. These bad days are rare; most days you would not have any idea that I have mental illness. Most days, I appear perfectly normal (well, normal for me).

Mental illnesses such as depression are real diseases, as real as cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. It’s well beyond time that the stigma that exists about mental illness be ended, to have real and honest conversations about mental illness. People like me who struggle are not crazy. We are sick. We need help. We need love.

It’s time for the church to step up and give love and acceptance to people who struggle instead of judgement. Platitudes such as “You just need to pray more” or “You’re not sick, the devil is trying to steal your joy,” while well intended, are unhelpful and are actually harmful. Collectively, the church recognizes that diseases are real and generally encourage the faithful to seek treatment. But when it comes to mental health, this has not been the case. The church has generally preached that mental illness is purely a manifestation of a poor spiritual condition rather than a brain disorder. This, also, is harmful and toxic. This kind of thinking has caused more spiritual harm than almost anything else. To think that someone is depressed or having anxiety due to being in sin is a ridiculous notion and a gross misinterpretation of scripture. It’s not enough to just want to “pray it away.” In scripture, prayer is always followed by action. We have to act. We can no longer ignore mental illness and pawn it off as someone’s sin or stress.

The church must be a safe place for all of God’s beloved.

I am one of the 1 in 6. So was Rev. Stoecklein. I don’t know all of the details of his situation and it’s none of my business. But I would hope that he was surrounded by love, prayer, and was at least attempting to seek help. The harsh reality is, sometimes the voices telling a depressed person that they are worthless win. Let’s do what we can to be louder than the voices.

We do this with love.

Advertisements

What Does Worship Really Mean?

worshiphim“Worship is when all God’s people get caught up in love and wonder and praise of God. It is not the performance of the few for the many.” – Dr. Ben Witherington III

Several times, I have mentioned here that I have had a sense that we, as the wider Christian church, need to get back to our roots. The decline of Christianity in the western world has led to an almost panic-like push to find the best ways for the church to do what it has been doing for about the last 2,000 years. Some say we should get back to using a traditional style of worship service while others say that we should put aside ancient rituals in favor of contemporary styles of worship. Some say that worship means having an organ and a preacher wearing a robe and stole while others say that there should be the feel of a rock concert and that the preacher should be wearing a flannel shirt and skinny jeans. The church is good at a lot of things and having debates such as these seems to be one of them.

Let me go ahead and state that this is not about advocating for traditional or contemporary worship. This is not about robes or skinny jeans or whether any of these things are right or wrong. Instead, this is about us remembering that worship is not about us. Worship is not for the people sitting in pews or chairs. Worship is not to please any person at all.

Worship is about God and is for God.

When we get bogged down in these debates, we lose sight of the real point of why we gather together and sing, pray, hear a message, and depart to serve. Regardless of what music or liturgy is present, the worship service can often take on the feel of a performance meant for the entertainment of the congregation. If this is what worship becomes, we’re doing it wrong.

The quote at the top of this post is from my New Testament Intro professor from a lecture he was giving on the theology of worship. Dr. Witherington was essentially telling us during this lecture that we worry so much about what we get from worship or what others get from worship. The thing we ought to be most worried about, however, is what God receives from our worship. Is God receiving our adoration and praise or is he receiving lip service in favor of self-serving, feel-good acts within the walls of the church?

Church, we have lost our way.

Scripture is filled with instruction on how we are to worship. One of my favorite passages on worship is Psalm 150. “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heaven!” There and elsewhere is nothing about the style with which we worship or about worship being primarily for us. We need to remember this.

Another source of instruction on worship is courtesy of Methodism founder John Wesley.

“In divine worship, (as in all other actions,) the first thing to be considered is the end, and the next thing is the means conducing to that end. The end is the honour of God, and the edification of the Church; and then God is honoured, when the Church is edified. The means conducing to that end, are to have the service so administered as may inform the mind, engage the affections, and increase devotion.”

— John Wesley, from his commentary on the Roman Catholic catechism

Should the church and those who make it up be built up? Of course. One of the things that worship should do is to draw us closer to God and make us think. Worship should give us the spiritual food that we need to go out and serve God in the world. But first and foremost, worship should be about and for God, directed at him as the primary reason and audience of worship. It’s alright to prefer a certain type of music or a certain preaching style but the first consideration that should be made about worship is whether or not the worship is directed to and dedicated to the glorification of God.

In the end, the how does not really matter as much as the audience. The audience is not us! The audience of worship is God. We need to remember that worship simply is not for us and that our preferences on music, the color of the carpet, and whether or not there are hymnals or projected lyrics should not matter in the end. Unfortunately, we seem to have allowed “worship wars” to take over. We have lost our way.

We need to get back to our roots.

Is Healthcare For All a Christian Principle?

healthcareBy now, you have heard that the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that essentially repeals the Affordable Care Act, also known as “ObamaCare.” Among the impacts this law has are the rolling back of protections for people (such as myself) with pre-existing conditions. There is some speculation in the media that the Senate will not pass the bill (at least not as easily) but who really knows what will happen when the bribes campaign contributions from insurance companies start rolling in. I suppose we can only wait and see.

I can attest to the difficulty people with pre-existing conditions may encounter if “TrumpCare” becomes law. When I was a child I had ketotic hypoglycemia. Based on my memories, it seems that there was a constant battle with insurance companies over coverage of my care related to this disease. I no longer battle this disease but I do have some issues. Granted, some can be dealt with through weight loss but there is at least one condition that I will likely have for the rest of my life regardless of my weight.  To think that an insurance company may potentially be able to deny coverage to me simply because of a disorder that I can not control is quite concerning.

Unfortunately, this may potentially apply to millions of American citizens, all because some politicians chose what was best for their interests rather than what is in the best interest of the citizens they serve.

There is debate among some about whether or not the provision of healthcare for all people is in line with Christian teaching. I must be honest: I’m vexed that this is even a question. I believe that there is no question that the expectation of healthcare for all people is indeed a tenet of living out our discipleship. Throughout scripture, there are multiple examples of the people being healed and instruction for God’s people to take care of one another. Jesus taught that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (and I’m pretty sure we all want to be able to receive care when we need it), he taught of the Good Samaritan caring for an injured man whom he did not even know, he teaches about healing mercy in Matthew 25. There is simply no way that anyone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus Christ can claim that anyone should be denied access to affordable, quality healthcare.

The prophet Ezekiel denounced the leaders of ancient Israel whose failure of responsible government included failure to provide health care: “you don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice” (Ezekiel 34:4). The United Methodist Church, therefore, affirms in our Social Principles (¶ 162V) healthcare as a basic human right and affirms the duty of government to assure health care for all.” (Taken from the UMC website). In the earliest days of the Methodist movement, John Wesley felt that part of our Christian duty was to provide care. He set up countless free clinics in England and when Methodism came to America, clinics continued to be established. To this day, there are numerous hospitals and other systems connected to Methodism.

I have no problem with doctors, hospitals, and other entities being paid for their work, just as we would expect to be paid for other work we undertake. But I also believe that healthcare should be affordable for all people and that all people should have equal access to quality care regardless of circumstances such as pre-existing conditions. To go against this is simply not right.

If we are to dare to call ourselves a Christian nation, one of the things we must provide for affordable healthcare for all people.