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Coping, Accepting and Radical Justice

By Rev. Rhonda Pigott-Thorndale

 

1 Samuel 16: 14 – 23

Psalm 88

John 13:31-35

 

I tend to be a lifelong learner, and right now I’m taking three different courses, a conversational Gaelic course, through U of T, a music composition course, through a private music studio and a Racial Justice course those our national church. Three very different subjects and presentations. One of the modules I’m currently exploring is on racial justice and mental health. As I work through these assignments, I realized it is also Mental Health Awareness Week and Month.


It can be difficult to admit that within Christian communities the stigma of mental illness can be strong. I have heard stories of ministry personnel getting their prescriptions for anti-depressants filled in pharmacies outside of their ministry context for fear that a congregant would find out they live with depression.  


However, we know ministry personnel can live with mental health challenges too, just like other members of our communities of faith. The Mental Health Commission of Canada reports that one in every five Canadians experience a mental health issue in a given year. 


A close friend’s daughter spent about a year in restorative care after having a baby. She struggled with post partum anxiety and depression. She became obsessed with about what she perceived as her lack of mothering skills, she had post it notes with complete instructions on every aspect of the baby’s life through the house. …. nursing instructions, clothing instructions, how to change a diaper, and then she took it a step farther, for the rest of her family, with things like how to brush your teeth thoroughly, hand washing instructions, how to use a key to unlock a door.  She would check off each completed task daily. Luckily, she had a very understanding husband and an excellent therapist who worked with them and she is well again.


ln the last few years mental illness has played a big role in our society.

Significant stress was experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many feared a loss of job security, loss of income, fear of not enough food, isolation and many others, while our medical staff struggled with exhausting, long hours and trying to help the very ill and in some cases a dying population.


There are all forms of mental health. Sarah Lund, a United Church of Christ minister, writes “Mental illness is not a gift and it is not a curse. Mental illness is a biochemical reality, like cancer, and heart disease, and all the things we wish would go away. Mental illness is no more a gift from God than cancer.” 


1 Samuel 16: 14 – 23 David in Saul's Service

14 Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him. 

15 And Saul's servants said to him, “Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you. 

16 Let our lord now command your servants who are before you to seek out a man who is skillful in playing the lyre, and when the harmful spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well.” 

17 So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me a man who can play well and bring him to me.” 

18 One of the young men answered, “Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him.”

 19 Therefore Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me David your son, who is with the sheep.” 

20 And Jesse took a donkey laden with bread and a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them by David his son to Saul. 

21 And David came to Saul and entered his service. And Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. 

22 And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” 

23 And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So, Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him.


The young David is introduced to the troubled King Saul who is tormented by “an evil spirit from the Lord.” David provides soothing music for the troubled king. But, more importantly, he is caring and compassionate even in the face of Saul’s terrible rages. Too often we try to explain behaviours we do not understand by hearing or labelling them as an “evil spirit” or as a punishment from God. Medical science has taught us much about illnesses of the brain. Modern researchers have theorized that Saul suffered from a mental illness. As people of faith, we are called to share God’s love and compassion with those who are hurting. We can and should be instruments of healing comfort to those we know are suffering from a mental illness through no fault of their own, just as David was an instrument of healing and comfort to Saul.

 

Psalm 88

O Lord, God of my salvation,   

 I cry out day and night before you.

Let my prayer come before you;    

incline your ear to my cry!


For my soul is full of troubles,    

and my life draws near to Sheol.

I am counted among those who go down to the pit;    

I am a man who has no strength,

like one set loose among the dead,    

like the slain that lie in the grave,

like those whom you remember no more,    

for they are cut off from your hand.

You have put me in the depths of the pit,    

in the regions dark and deep.

Your wrath lies heavy upon me,    

and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah


You have caused my companions to shun me;    

you have made me a horror[b] to them.

I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

my eye grows dim through sorrow.

Every day I call upon you, O Lord;    

I spread out my hands to you.

Do you work wonders for the dead?    

Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah

Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,    

or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

Are your wonders known in the darkness,    

or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?


But I, O Lord, cry to you;   

in the morning my prayer comes before you.

O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?    

Why do you hide your face from me?

Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,    

I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.[

Your wrath has swept over me;    

your dreadful assaults destroy me.

They surround me like a flood all day long;    

they close in on me together.

You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;    

my companions have become darkness.


Feeling unwell can be a lonely experience. Sometimes we need to isolate ourselves to keep other people from getting sick. Sometimes we isolate ourselves because we have no energy or desire to engage other people. But what happens when the illness or condition is not a contagious virus, but a chronic illness? It’s one thing to feel lonely and isolated for a week or two. It’s another thing to live years feeling this way.


In our global family we experience the loneliness and isolation of chronic, serious mental health challenges. The symptoms of the depression, anxiety, addictions, bipolar disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress syndrome, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and others impact our abilities to communicate and connect to meaningful relationships. It can make for a lonely life. Connecting to other people takes tremendous energy, intentionality, and courage.


It can feel shameful to feel so lonely. We can wonder if there is something wrong with us, if anybody likes us or even cares about us. We can feel unloved and unlovable. Living with mental health challenges impacts our sense of belonging because loneliness makes us feel like we don’t belong.


The Psalmist describes in Psalm 88 feelings of sadness, isolation, anger, abandonment, mistrust, spiritual emptiness and hopelessness. But sometimes it is precisely with our wounds and in our brokenness that we are most open to God. When we let go of our need to control and are truly open to God’s trans-forming grace, we find that the darkness becomes a time not of doing and knowing, but of being and unknowing. It is here that we discover the source of mystery that holds us and surrounds us even when we are not aware of that Divine presence.


What people living with mental health challenges need are friends. In addition to mental health care and services like therapy, medications, and treatment, we need true friends. Let’s expand the reach of God’s love and embrace the calling to mental health and wellness ministries of the church. In doing so we will be less lonely, and we will encounter the gift of Christ-centered compassionate connection.


While the whole church seeks to break the silence and work to end the stigma of mental illness, I believe that God accompanies and strengthens us in this journey. 

This is where our pastoral care team and others can share hope and healing for people living with mental health challenges and their loved ones. Jesus models for us the gift of friendship. Throughout the gospels, Jesus seeks out the lost and lonely. Jesus heals people through relationships.


John 13: 31 - 35

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. 33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

As we talk about breaking down stigma, we remind ourselves of what Jesus said to the disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you… Jesus is speaking of unconditional love, and yet there is work to love. Breaking down stigma related to mental health is not simple, it requires a great deal of love that is built out working to understand another’s journey

Let’s expand the reach of God’s love and embrace the calling to mental health and wellness ministries of the church.


Conversations about mental health, both public and private, sometimes can be complicated and difficult, especially in a religious context. There are many pressures in our world to feel happy, but these pressures can also be overwhelming, harmful, exhausting, and so much more.


Be respectful of your friend’s confidentiality. Many people will mental health concerns have endured stigma for many years. They may not want others to know they have mental health challenges, substance disorder, neurodevelopmental differences, or other brain disorders.


Be aware that language can be hurtful. Avoid stigmatizing words like crazy, nuts, psycho.


Listen without being judgmental or offering advice.


Talk about God’s unconditional love for them and your care and concern for them.

Gently educate those who spread misinformation about mental health challenges, substance use disorders and brain differences or perpetuate negative stereotypes.


Treat all people with compassion and understanding.


Educate yourself about mental health challenges, understanding that some individuals may need more than spiritual counseling. Refer them to appropriate mental health professional while continuing to support them as a spiritual friend.


Pray for balance in their lives and tolerance in yours, while remembering the great commandment to love one another.


Amen.

 

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