With Us in Our Suffering

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler

Scriptures (Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16)

            Take a moment and imagine with me. Imagine that someone visits your church for the first time. You are chatting with them after worship, getting to know them a little, and they share with you that they struggle with a serious anxiety disorder. You say, “Thank you for sharing that with me. How can we be helpful to you, as you worship with us, and you deal with that?” Next, imagine that the visitor with the anxiety disorder recounts to you that, after decades going to churches, she has never ever had that response before. “Typically,” she explains, “people just look awkward and change the subject.” Sisters and brothers, siblings in Christ, I cannot imagine. I cannot imagine the ongoing pain that people deal with—and the many times that the church, people in the church, have disregarded, avoided, found awkward, or even shamed the pain of mental illness. How tragic and un-Jesus-like that is. And yet, that is a true story.

            You may have read our most recent church newsletter, where Jessie Houff, our Community Arts Minister, linked an article she wrote about pushing for inclusion in the church. While the term inclusion often brings LGBTQ inclusion, the inclusion Jessie and many other young adults were pushing for at National Young Adult Conference (and beyond) encompasses many social identities and difficulties, including varying abilities and mental health. One of the many inclusion-focused questions Jessie and others asked Church of the Brethren denominational leadership was this: “Why aren’t we talking about mental illness as a church?” Shortly after I read Jessie’s piece, I turned to today’s lectionary passages. I saw the immense suffering of the Psalm 22 author and I couldn’t help but think about depression. So, I chose to focus my message today on mental health in the church.

            Overall, Christians have had a fairly spotty and shoddy track record when it comes to inclusion and support for people with mental health issues. Inside and outside of the church, well-meaning but ignorant folks say things like, people with depression should just “cheer up” or “think about how good they have it.”

Things like this meme:

and this one:

Sometimes, well-meaning but ignorant Christians over-spiritualize illness. Sometimes, people say that mental health issues are demonic or a byproduct of a lack of spirituality—they are the “fault” of the person.

            To be clear, they are not the fault of the person. Mental health issues have a variety of sources, from the biological processes and potential imbalances or deficiencies in certain neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain), to genetic predispositions, and to life experiences such as trauma, abuse, and oppression. There are a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety disorders, depression, prolonged grief disorder, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and traumatic stress disorders. Some mental health issues are short-term, others are periodic, and still others long-term.  

            As a congregation, I think we are fairly open and that we do not stigmatize mental health issues in our congregation. Many folks have been open informally about journeys or struggles with mental health issues. And yet, formally, we still need to be intentional to do the work. If we want to be a church that is supportive, inclusive, and open to mental health issues, then we need to be intentional about restating, reminding, and embedding that into the way we build community, the way we engage with each other, the way we talk about our lives amidst our shared journeys following Jesus.

            Sometimes, though, it is easier to encourage other people to get the help they need than to get help yourself.

I realized during the course of the pandemic, primarily in 2020, that I was severely struggling.

Through some social support networks and meetings, a friend told me about high functioning depression, which I had not known about and which I, apparently, had. You can still “be productive” and have depression. You can still go through the motions of everyday life and be dying a little bit inside, throughout the whole day.

No one has to live that way without seeking help, either through doctors, psychologists, counselors, pastors, or even the social support of a faith community.

            We need to reduce stigma because mental health issues are normal: almost half of adults in the United States will experience mental illness at some point throughout their lifetimes (Mental Health First Aid, 2019). In any given year, about 20% of adults might be treated for mental illness. These numbers are likely lower than what actually occurs, due to stigma and underreporting. Since mental illness is an everyday thing, we need to talk about it. If we are a church seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus, we need to be a church that is open and honest about mental health issues, supporting each other and encouraging each other to get the health care and resources that we need.

I want to pivot to give us time to meditate on two scripture texts: Psalm 22:1-15 and Hebrews 4:12-16. At times, we have `practiced Lectio Divina, where we read scripture aloud and provide opportunities for people to share the ways that God may be speaking to them through scripture. I ask that you speak for yourself and without judgment of others.

Our first scripture is a Psalm, one that Jesus later quotes during his suffering on the cross. READ Psalm 22:1-15.

What words and phrases stand out to you? What may God be speaking to you (or the church) through that)? Any other thoughts or reflections?

[Please pause me for a few moments, to give silence and opportunity for people to speak]

I find it meaningful to see in scripture the “depths of despair” that I sometimes have felt. I see the Psalmist also saying that God is present and taking care, even if the person in anguish cannot sense or feel it because their pain is so deep.

Our second scripture is from the book of Hebrews, where the author (unknown) wrote to the early church.  READ Hebrews 4:12-16.

What words and phrases stand out to you? What may God be speaking to you (or the church) through that)? Any other thoughts or reflections? [Please pause me for a few moments, to give silence and opportunity for people to speak]

For me, I find it meaningful to see that Jesus has suffered in every way that we have. God incarnate knows the deepest depths of pain that we can experience. To me, that is profound.

Saying “Jesus is with us,” and “Jesus has walked through immense suffering” does not mean we look to some easy answer, some pat or trite statement like, “Jesus knows what you’re going through,” as if that is the end of the discussion. By no means. Rather, I think that it is an existential and profound framework or understanding to ruminate on as we grapple with grief, depression, anxiety, trauma, eating disorders, and other difficulty mental health issues. It’s not an answer to a question, but a blanket to clothe ourselves with as we walk on this journey of life.

References

Mental Health First Aid. (2019). 5 Surprising Mental Health Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/2019/02/5-surprising-mental-health-statistics/

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