National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from FaithNet NAMI
Mental Illness needs more exposure before our congregations. Preaching is one way to get that exposure. Information and encouragement from the pulpit can make a big difference in educating those who do not have mental illness and in welcoming those who do. You could devote a Sunday to the topic, or several Sundays, for a series just prior to Mental Illness Awareness Week. But what if you follow the lectionary — will that keep you from talking about mental illness?
In 2001 Rev. Rose Ann Briotte, a Psychiatric Chaplain in Tennessee, and Rev. Jackson Day, GBCS Program Director for Health and Wholeness, looked at the lections for mid-September to mid-November – Pentecost 15-23, Year C - to see where the mental illness preaching possibilities might lie.
When mental illness strikes in young adulthood, these people experience being lost from their faith communities as much as the lost son, the lost sheep, or the lost coin in these parables. Jesus’ parables image the housewife leaving nothing undisturbed to find the lost coin, the shepherd risking the entire flock to find the lost sheep, and offer the image of God actively covenanting with the mentally ill with the expectation of great rejoicing when they are found. When we put our lives and churches in God’s hands, we do the same. These parables lead us away from our impulse to blame the "lost," and to see God’s way in focusing our outreach on them and in celebrating at the time of their recovery.
When persons with mental illness are diagnosed today, they enter the world of the unjust steward: often uninsured, unemployed, institutionalized and isolated from family, friends, and anything resembling a faith community. Jesus’ startling praise of the steward’s dishonesty prefaces his question, "if then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?" In administering the resources God has put in the hand of church and nation, Jesus calls Christians to be both shrewder and more faithful in our stewardship on behalf of the mentally ill than even the crafty and unjust steward.
The words of this Psalm strike a special chord for those with schizophrenia. Those with schizophrenia, like the Psalmist, feel overwhelmed by the terror at night, the various arrows that fly by day and the pestilence that stalks in the darkness. This biochemical disorder affects the pathways of the brain down which messages travel and messages may not get through or get through distorted. Schizophrenia affects the ability to correctly interpret the outside world, to actively engage the world around one’s self, and one’s ability to focus attention on problems that need solving. The Psalmist gives assurance that the shelter of the Most High will act as a shield against these dark forces.
Mental illness is an experience of exile made more unbearable by others’ ignorance of what they are going through. Like the ancients in Babylon, those who discover they have a mental illness are now in a strange new land where they feel cut off both from home and from God. They must adapt to a new way of life and challenges they never thought possible, and for many, the only song possible is filled with anger, bitterness, homesickness, and denial. Look around at your congregation on Sunday morning and think of each family who have wrestled with mental illness. Though they are among us and a part of our faith community, they inhabit a land to which others of us are strangers. What can we do to help them feel free to share their experiences, receive our support, and know that they continue to be a vital part of us, the Body of Christ?
The experience of those with mental illness and their families, like many other marginalized groups of people, is an experience of exile. To all exiles, Jeremiah has very important words: build where you are and seek the welfare of the city where you live. This is a two-edged sword. For the exiles – for the mentally ill – it means coming to terms with a community that has often been indifferent, if not hostile to them. It means standing up for one’s self and not leaving, even where one does not feel welcome. It means accepting one’s diagnosis and the treatment that goes with it. It is not easy for those with mental illness to figure out how to put down roots in THIS place, not some other place, and find a way to survive. But the sword cuts another way. For the others of us, Jeremiah’s words tell us it is right for those with mental illness to be among us and to claim membership in our community; and therefore Jeremiah’s words call us to greet those with mental illness with welcome, support, and acceptance.
For persons living with the debilitating symptoms of mental illness, it is difficult to find hope, let alone persistence. Some of the mentally ill will have the persistence of the widow in the parable, but many will not; for them the command to "always pray and not lose heart," will remain out of reach. Those of us in the church community need to be persistent on behalf of those who have had even their persistence taken away; to continue our efforts of both mercy and justice in the assurance that if even an unjust judge will bow to persistence, how much more will "God grant justice to the chosen ones who cry to God day and night?"
This Psalm gives us a wonderful theology of God – (1) God answers prayer, (2) God forgives transgressions, (3) God brings people near, (4) God is hope, and (5) God nourishes the earth. It’s important for all of us, but even more so for those who are marginalized, like those with mental illness. Seeing this Psalm through their eyes brings it to life in new ways. Often, people don’t understand those with mental illness or stigmatize them. Are we among those who need forgiveness? What can we do to make our congregations more inclusive? God has made all of us trustees of God’s hope — how can we make that hope real for those with mental illness?
This reading begins in despair and ends with hope. For Habakkuk, writing at the height of Babylonian power, the despair concerned continuing destruction and violence falling on the Jewish remnant. For the mentally ill, the despair concerns the ways our healthcare system often sets profits before people and how money better used for research, treatment, and cure is sometimes hoarded and abused. Habakkuk writes so that people then, as with people now, will understand what is behind the despair — to speak out, make people understand the disease and its symptoms, and inform others. When persons with faith struggle with a chronic illness, they need neither "attitudes" nor "platitudes," but rather Habakkuk’s words that "there is still a vision for the appointed time," and "the righteous live by their faith."
The Beatitudes challenge the church with a message of both warning and opportunity for those who are marginalized, especially persons with mental illness. Jesus blesses the poor; incomes of the mentally ill are substantially below others. Jesus blesses those who are hungry; while poverty brings a physical hunger, mental illness brings a spiritual hunger for connection to God and others. Things will change, Jesus promises: those excluded will be included, while those who have been excluders will be excluded. If your congregation wants the blessing that comes from taking the side of those who God has blessed, this is a good time to consider the United Methodist Caring Community program in which congregations study mental illness, the Church Council formally approves a covenant statement, and the congregation publicizes its welcome for the mentally ill and their families in the community.
Like the Jews in the days of Babylon, those who have mental illness have gone through a major loss in their lives, the destruction of things cherished culminating in an experience of exile. To both, Haggai’s message comes: "Take courage…all you people of the land…work, for I am with you. Work hard to rebuild that which has been destroyed, for your latter splendor will be greater than the former." But this is not an easy challenge. In ancient Jerusalem, a demoralized people who had lost their way matched the destroyed temple. In today’s church, a church that has lost its way in complacency matches the loss and exile of those with mental illness, self-centeredness and forgetfulness of the great welcome for all which is the primary mission entrusted to it by God. The II Thessalonians reading provides strength for this challenge by challenging all to stand firm in the faith they have all had since baptism and childhood; thereby the mentally ill will be reunited again with the people of faith, and they will find both comfort and support from God and faithful people alike.