Not on the journey alone

on walking and writing and walking and writing

This is one of those lessons that I learn over and over again: you are not alone, nor should you be. I am aware that it speaks to something foundational for me, and perhaps for you. As for me, I’ve been walking and hiking more of late, mostly due to a running injury that has kept me from logging my usual mile after mile. In its place, my time has been consumed with writing and editing ahead of signing a book contract, revamping websites, adjusting online profiles so that it all fits some marketing niche (yes, you can tell I don’t exactly love this part).

But there it is. One step. Another step. Watch where you step. Listen to where others encourage you to step. Walk with them.

You see, I’m used to running on my own, at my own pace (which is not so slow I must say). Running solo typically means getting up early, lacing up my shoes, and going for a run when I want to … for as long as I want to. But at this point, I am a middle-aged runner with an injury.

When you are injured, your first best step is to deny, deny, deny, right?!?

But the pain reminds you. And when you decide that you can try to go out for a longer run this time the injury will remind you that you are in a season of “one step at a time”. It may also be helpful to reach out for some help along the way … which brings me to the writing piece.

My lovely wife and I have signed a book contract. Now this has come after many hours (especially for her) of blogging and writing, self-publishing her own book, eventually, me catching up and self-publishing my own work, a lot of work to secure a literary agent and agency, and finally getting to the point of having an actual contract with a publisher! Whew. This process has been a journey, a journey that has been step by step by step, word by word by word. And in the end, we haven’t been alone.

Each part of the way it feels that we have gathered additional support for the journey. Initially, it was my wife and I deciding to try to have an eight-week class on anxiety by combining sound clinical information with Christian spiritual practices. To our delight, we had a classful who wanted to walk that journey with us! We wrote and led and learned from the class participants.

We wrote and revised, rewrote and changed based on what seemed to work and what didn’t work in that class setting (and the other two classes after). We imagined what it would be like for someone to read the book as an individual, not in a class at a church, or not with a clinician or pastoral counselor alongside them.

And along the way, we picked up supporters, people saying “you can do this”, a supportive agent and agency, and now a publisher and editor that are excited about these next steps. For me, it connects to a quote from Anne Lamott:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. … It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

So on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, we were grateful for a supportive conversation with our editor. He gave us helpful and supportive feedback, and we feel we have another person to help us know where to step and to accompany us on this journey.

There are still steps to go and sites to see along the way. We’ve got some revising to do. We will be part of a team that chooses a cover for the book, that makes decisions about audience and marketing, but also gets to launch a book out into the world that is full of God’s grace for people who are struggling with anxiety.

And for those of you who have taken a lot of these steps with us: thank you.

We’re all still on the path, taking it step by step, and we are grateful for your presence with us.

We are ALL family

Lectionary Readings: Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

“We are family, I got all my sisters with me, We are family, Get up ev’rybody and sing.”

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

OK. So Sister Sledge is not exactly the same as the gospel reading. But in this reading, Jesus is not exactly going with “traditional” family values either. Jesus looks around at this crowd of people gathered, a crowd that had been following him and his newly named disciples; the crowd had been interested in his teaching, wowed by the healings. And at this point in the story we are told that Jesus’s own mother and brothers came “to get him”. In response, Jesus looks over this crowd, a crowd that included his own family and asks, “Who are my mother and brothers?”

I can imagine a quiet pause at this point.

Now, if you are asked the question “Who are your people?” as we are apt to do, especially around here, there are answers that come to mind. Think on it for just a second. There are kinships that are about biological heritage, some of that heritage is direct and some of it, especially in this age of DNA testing, allows us to reach back and think of heritage in terms of migration patterns over many thousands of years. There are kinships based on family, family which may be biological or adoptive. There are divisions based on job, profession, maybe career. There are tribes such as religious groups, belief systems, political persuasions. There are many ways in which we define our kind of people.

And then Jesus asks, “Who is my family?”

Well, the obvious answer in our gospel reading is that Jesus’s family are the ones looking a bit irritated and that are coming to take Jesus home. Maybe Jesus’s family was embarrassed at what Jesus was doing . . . or perhaps there were good intentions, efforts to protect Jesus. After all, his mother and brothers may be worrying about the crowds that he was drawing, feeling afraid of the attention of the religious leaders and the Roman authorities. His family would not have been ignorant of what happens when you cross the leaders in that day.

And almost assuming that Jesus was not aware of their presence, this person tells him, “Your family is here for you.”

And Jesus looks out at the crowd and says “Here are my mother and brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my mother and sister and brother.”

Now y’all know, we are in the south. And even if you were not raised here, you know and I know that if this were a southern family, there’d be a few gasps from the crowd after Jesus said this. And in a more genteel time there might be a swoon and the fluttering emergence of a kerchief. What is more likely in this day and age is someone saying “Now just who do you think you are!?!”

But again, this Jesus does not do things the way that you should, at least not as the religious leaders of that day said that you should, not as that culture said that you should. He heals people on the Sabbath; he touches people that you are not supposed to touch; he talks with women and treats them as whole people, as equals. When you know that God loves everyone, when you practice radical acceptance, love and grace, when you preach healing and reconciliation, this is a message that disarms the powers of this world. This is how you bind up the strong man. This is how you sing, “We are family!”

Yet there is also a tougher message here too, especially for those of us who feel that we “have it right”. This convicting word may make us want to hide from God as Adam and Eve did, feeling the need to cover ourselves in excuses, to cover our nakedness, to blame the other, because “they made me do it”. Because what is most convicting about this story, this parable of Jesus, is this whole piece about a kingdom divided against itself, and how that kingdom cannot stand.

This story is situated just after Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, and the priests and religious leaders are accusing him of being in league with Satan, this Satan being a word that means “adversary”, the tempter.

And Jesus counters this assertion from the religious leaders through the logic that if you are on the side of this Satan, this adversary, then you would not be working against Satan. Because this tempter, this adversary, this Satan is one who seeks to divide us. This Satan is the one who encourages us to choose sides like family or kinship or race or gender or sex or liberal or conservative or democrat or republican or libertarian or green. It is hard not to hear echoes of where we are right now, right this very minute as a nation.

But Jesus says “we are family” . . . we are ALL family.

If you believe that God’s love is for all of us, then these divisions, as tempting as they are, work against the love of God. If we stand in the way of sharing God’s love, even for people with whom we disagree, then we are standing in the way of God’s Spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.

And this is where any of us can feel a bit of a sting.

I know my sin. I know that there are times when I have been angry at the other side, have called them names, have dehumanized them. I also know the way of God’s love is not the same as accepting hurt or injustice. In the face of injustice, doing the will of God is showing the way of love, not hate. Because it is surely a life in hell to be in that place where they are on this side and you are on that side. If we fall prey to this sort of either/or thinking, we have fallen for the temptation. We are following the tempter, this Satan.

Jesus is about both/and, not either/or. This Jesus shows us the way of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of healing. Jesus points to a different kind of kinship, of family.

It is then that we are building something eternal, not temporary.

We are family. All of us are family. We are family. Get up everybody and sing . . .


[Sermon for St. Francis Episcopal Church, Macon, Georgia, 10 June 2018]

Link to Podcast/Audio: Anchor.fm

Link to other writing on Medium: https://medium.com/@jasonhobbslcsw

Rooted in God

John 15:1-8, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

1 John 4:7-21, “Whoever does not love does not know God.”

“So where are you from?” is the question that many of us ask, or are asked, when we meet someone.

And in the case of my wife Dena and I, we are often told, “You don’t sound like you are from around here.”

For the two of us, for a reason I don’t quite understand, our accents faded some as we were growing up, as we went to college, and as we left Georgia to go to school in Virginia.

Dena grew up in Warner Robins, so maybe being a part of a military community, with the diverse places and accents that would be in this self-proclaimed “International City”, perhaps that changed what might have been a southern drawl to something more neutral.

For me, the place where I grew up was called the “Maaaaaaaa-rrreee” community.  The name is Marie, but that is not how you say it if you are from the “Maaaaarree” community. That place got its name from the little church that was just down the road, a half-mile from the house where I grew up.  There were pine trees that had been planted in the land bordering on the back of that church. There was a cemetery across the road. And around that cemetery, there was our family land, land that my grandfather had owned and divided. This was the land where my father planted corn, wheat, soybeans and peanuts.  It was the land where he allowed people to shoot dove when the season was in. It was also the land that he kept hogs on. On that same piece of land was the house that my father and mother had built, sitting right next to the white clapboard house where he was raised.

So, where was it that you grew up?  What was it like there? How did that place nurture you?  Even though some of us may have moved around a lot when we were young, think about those places.  What is the soil from which you grew like a tender plant?

We are all like plants that grow.  We have all been planted somewhere; we all have our roots in some soil in some place.  But . . . in addition to that planting, there are the sacred places in our lives where we are rooted. There are those places where we have life because of our connection to God and the love of God.  Maybe for you, this church is a part of that.

Our readings for this Sunday are from the gospel of John and from one of the three letters attributed to John. These words remind us of God’s love for us and that we exist because of that love.  Apart from that love, we have nothing; we are nothing. Without that fertile soil and the ways in which our roots are nourished by that soil, we have nothing; we are nothing.

Each of us individually is that vine that Jesus talks about.  Each of us knows the pain of being pruned. And there have been times where we have felt dried up and have not yielded fruit.  And maybe you have realized at those times that part of why you struggled, part of why you felt dried-up is that your roots were not in this soil.  There are times when we lose that connection to God.

In the gospel reading, Jesus is telling the disciples to ensure that they are connected, that they are rooted in God. The language here is “abiding”.  It is that sense that we have our very being in God; our life is God’s life. And this is where the other reading reminds us that this rootedness in God is also a rootedness in community, in a particular place, with roots in a particular soil.

Yet, you and I both know that living in community is not easy; it is a challenge.  Love is a challenge.  Because we all have different ideas and opinions, different places that we are from, different experiences of life, different experiences of God.

And in this letter from John, there is strong language to say that we do not understand God’s love for us if we do not love each other, if we do not enter into deep, lasting, loving, trying, changing, challenging relationships with each other.  Because we are all together like the vines connected to God. We will be pruned at times; we may have felt dried up and useless at times! And we also know that as communities, if we are without our connection to God, without abiding in God and knowing God’s love, we can do nothing; we are nothing.

So I ask you to consider your roots, to be grounded in the love of God for you and for everyone. Abide in God and share that love with those around you, with your community, with your city and state, with this country that needs more love and less hate, and with this whole world.


Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

[Sermon for Fort Valley Presbyterian Church, 29 April 2018]

Audio link: https://anchor.fm/jasonhobbslcsw/embed/episodes/Rooted-in-God-e1d3hu/a-a1q07v

Raising up our Hurt

Numbers 21:4-9, “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
John 3:14-21, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

[Sermon for First Presbyterian Church, Thomaston, Georgia, Sunday, March 11, 2018]
Good morning! I am glad to be here this morning, but I have to tell you something. When I looked at the lectionary readings, and this story of grumbling and snakes was there, I could see why Glenn might want someone else to handle this reading about the snakes. And as we are in a Presbyterian church, that does mean that the only handling of snakes that will be done this morning, and frankly, the only kind of snake-handling that I am interested in, is to attempt to handle them with words.
But even handling this passage with words, it is not easy to grasp, to hold. This is not a passage with which we feel safe.
This is a passage about suffering, even more, suffering sent by God. I suspect many of you feel as I do, that we would rather move on, quickly, to the gospel reading. This predicament reminds me of times when I have been walking around the pond on the land where I grew up, over in Dublin, Georgia. As a boy, I would be walking through that wooded area beside the pond that felt for all the world like a wilderness to me at the time. But you had to watch your step, because right around the spillway, where there was a collection of rocks to hold the soil, there sitting on a rock was often a snake, sunning itself. And when you saw that serpent . . . you stop . . . pause . . . and you gently stepped around it. At the time I could not have told you exactly what sort of snake that it was, although my father had told me a story, more than once, about being bitten on his fingernail by a baby rattlesnake that had somehow made its way into his toolbox. Luckily, thankfully, its fangs did not pierce the nail of my father’s thumb.

There are sometimes dangers around a farm, around the woods, and in the wilderness. As a boy, I had been warned.
So yes, this is the sort of story when we encounter it in scripture, that we too feel that we would like to gently step around, to avoid it, to leave well enough alone. So we move on to the gospel reading, of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. This Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious leader, who came by night because he might have lost his position had he been seen with Jesus during the day. Jesus was the sort of person with whom “respectable” people did not want to be seen. There was danger there too.
But then when we try to avoid the first reading by slithering over to the gospel reading, the danger shows up there too: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”. There is that staff with the snake, being held up, and being held up as an image of who Jesus would be.
And this reminds me of a truth about our faith, about our lives: we cannot always hide from what we are afraid of. We cannot perpetually avoid our hurts, those hurts we have done and the hurts that have been done to us. Sometimes we have to look at them.
And the children of Israel, this group of people wandering about in the wilderness in this passage from Numbers, they had plenty of hurt to look at. Yes, they were now free from slavery, having been liberated by God through Moses from oppression under Egypt. But still, this freedom was not so easy either. And as with many who have left difficult situations, there is sometimes a way of looking back, even at a situation that hurt us deeply, and saying, “Well, it wasn’t that bad.” And we grumble. We grumble about the food. We grumble about how far we have to walk. We grumble like kids in the backseat on a long trip asking “are we there yet?!?!”
So in this passage, God gets tired of the grumbling. But instead of being the angry, frustrated parent in the front seat yelling, “NO! We are not there yet!”, in this passage, for reasons that I’m not sure there is an adequate explanation for, this God sends venomous snakes to bite the people, causing them pain, causing some of them death. And it is at that point that the people go to Moses to “please, please, please” take these snakes away from us.
But then that is not what happens.
Instead, God has Moses create a snake made of bronze. Moses attaches it to a pole and then raises this snake high above the people so that those who have been bitten can look on this bronze snake and then be healed. This was what God told Moses to do. It is a strange cure to be certain.

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Rod of Asclepius

The cure is that we must look at what hurt us in order to live.
Now, I am a therapist, a clinical social worker by training. And there are many with whom I have sat that know that when they come to me, we will look at what hurt. Most of these wounds are emotional and mental, although those wounds often come with injury that is physical as well. These wounds that we carry are painful; they burn as the venom continues to work its way through our system, infecting our thoughts about ourselves and our thoughts about others. Over time this venom infects our biology in ways that affect us physically, not just mentally, although the mental pain is enough.
And so we raise up what hurt us. We look at it long and hard, seeing it clearly so that it cannot hurt us anymore.
So as you can see, on this particular Sunday in the season of Lent, this passage about the snakes is paired with this story of Nicodemus going to Jesus, by night. He wanted to talk to Jesus about being “born again” or depending on your translation, “born from above”. And Nicodemus struggles with these teachings that he has heard from Jesus. He struggles with who Jesus says that he is. And then in the context of this conversation, Jesus says that Jesus too will be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.
We will have to look at our hurt, the hurt we have caused and the hurt that has been done to us. We will have to have it raised over our heads and fully see it.
This is the path to rebirth. This is the path of healing. This is the way for us as Christians.
And Jesus goes on to one of the most loved, most memorized, most often seen at football games on a piece of paperboard passages: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
You see, God did not send snakes this time . . . and the purpose is not condemnation, but reconciliation. But that reconciliation may mean looking at the hurt that we have caused . . . and the hurt that has been done to us. Reconciliation is not just forgiveness of sin by God, but also forgiveness of each other, of the extension of light and grace and love from God to us, but also to everyone.
So, as we continue this Lenten journey, may we be a people who are willing to look at our hurt, at the hurt done to us and the hurt that we have done, and may we be willing to be people of light and grace and healing out in the world.

What you meant for evil . . .

Genesis 50:20, “You meant to do me harm, but God meant it for good . . .”

The story of Joseph is a favorite of children, with many elements to enjoy. The story has the family dynamics of a parent favoring one who is younger, not the oldest. This favor represents itself in an object: the coat of many colors. There is intrigue and deception in that Joseph’s brothers, acting out of their jealousy, sell Joseph into slavery into Egypt. Joseph encounters many trials there, ending up in prison. But through the gift of his ability to interpret dreams and his wisdom in how to act based on that interpretation, Joseph survives, even prospers. Joseph is largely responsible for Egypt surviving a terrible famine, having the ingenuity to have the people plant the land and store the crops.

The peak of the story occurs when Joseph’s own family comes to Egypt, before Joseph, looking for grain. They do not recognize him, setting in motion a back and forth where Joseph eventually gets them to bring his youngest brother and his now-aged father to Egypt, in effect saving them all from famine. And this is where we receive a theological gift where Joseph says to them, “You meant to do me harm, but God meant it for good, to save many lives.” Often the translation emphasizes the plan to do Joseph harm, and how God’s plan was an intention for good, for life.

There are other places where we encounter this language around God’s plan. There is Jeremiah 29 where God tells the people that God has plans for them to prosper. These words come to them in the midst of exile. There is Paul writing in Romans 8:28 that “in everything God works for good for love who love God . . .”. This gets to some of the most challenging parts of our lives when we are faced with deep pain which may have happened with intention by others, by their anger, their hate and hostility. But then there are difficult experiences for which there is no one to blame. There are disasters and illness and deaths that wreak havoc on a life.

But does that mean that that was God’s plan?

Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis points to a healthy tension in the text. He writes that it affirms both “realism” and “certitude”. “Realism about our human place of jeopardy. Certitude about its outcome, by the faithfulness of God. Realism taken alone leads to despair, for then we only know about the danger, but not about the outcome. Certitude taken alone leads to romanticism, for then we only know the victory but imagine we are immune from the battle.”

My sense is that there are times in the face of difficulty that this emphasis on God’s plan is faithful in that it does rely on a strong, powerful God to ultimately take care of the outcome. But that can also lead to a passivity, a willingness to let hate and hurt continue to inflict their wounds on us and on others.

The other side of the tension is where realism reigns, where it is our responsibility to fight disease, tragedy, and those who would hate and hurt others. I have lived long enough to know that human nature is both good and bad; our efforts are not the only answer. We do not do this alone. And at this point, my experience tells me too that this fight is not without pain, injury, and even death.

Yet the call is to walk into the fight, trusting in the eventual outcome of good.

Turning the Other Cheek

Matthew 5:38-48

“But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also.”

So let me begin by saying that as a therapist, as a clinical social worker/pastoral counselor, I do not like this passage much at all. In my time as a social worker, I have worked with all sorts of vulnerable people, from those who were homeless, to people who were dying, people addicted to substances and behaviors, to folks struggling with illnesses, physical, mental, or both. And so the worst part to me about this passage, is when you are working with people whose situation involves a bully, an abusive spouse or partner, or working through abuse that occurred as a child. Because most of us, when we hear this passage, we hear this: “Just let them take it and give them more.” “Turn the other cheek so that they can just hit you again.”

It is almost as if we hear this as “just be passive, a humble servant, and this is what God wants.”

And I strongly disagree with this interpretation. I am made profoundly uncomfortable in hearing these words as a reason for someone to remain in a situation where one is being hurt, where you are broken and afraid. But perhaps there is a different word here in this passage, a different layer of meaning, which we miss somehow.

After all, what should not surprise us, but does sometimes, is that Jesus speaks in different ways to different people. For the pharisees, who were so religiously pious in the temple that they did no good out in the world, Jesus says, “You brood of vipers!” And to those who were sick and vulnerable, Jesus doesn’t say that “I have made you whole,” but instead tells them “your faith has made you whole.” Jesus chases out the moneychangers in the temple, but when the disciples were shooing the children away, Jesus says, “Let the children come to me.”

We miss the message if we miss that Jesus was on the side of the vulnerable, the hurt, these that are called “sinners” at times. I first encountered this way of thinking in a class at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, a class called Contextual Theologies where we read articles by authors who were writing about their experience of God and scripture based on their particular experience, often an experience of being an outsider or powerless in some form or fashion. One article that we read was by a woman named Valerie Saiving. She argued that even our very idea of sin, of sin as pride, as being “too much,” that this is a particularly male way of looking at the situation. She writes that for most females, especially during the 1960s through 1980s when Saiving was writing and teaching, that sin for women could be not recognizing God’s image in them too. Sin was not standing up, that women instead should be encouraged, not discouraged. This is what we hear in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, about this savior who is coming that will raise up the meek, and will bring the mighty down.

And to me, that sounds like a fight, right? That sounds like getting your fists up and ready, guns blazing, time to take them on! Eye for an eye, right?! Tooth for a tooth, right?!

Oh, but wait a minute . . . we have this passage from Matthew. Jesus is telling us NOT to do what feels so natural. We have heard it said “an eye for an eye,” but Jesus tells us, as followers of Christ, that this is not who we are to be.

 So now what?!? Do we fight? Do we just give in? Or is there some other way?

And here is the struggle, in this challenging passage. Jesus does not talk to us in either/or dichotomies because that is not how God is. God is not either/or; God is both/and. God does love those who are vulnerable, rest assured. And we emphasize God’s special love for the vulnerable so that we, who may have more, we remember that just because some of us have more, it does not mean that God loves us more. God loves the weak and the hurt, but God loves those who are strong too. God loves the oppressed, but God also loves the oppressor . . . and loves them enough to not allow them to remain in a system, a system of sin, that hurts and oppresses, a system that kills them and their spirit too.

God loves all of us.

    And truth is some of us don’t like that very much.

Funny thing is even the old “eye for an eye” rule was an improvement. There was a time that when people were hurt, they hurt someone else. Then that person just hurts back, over and over, in a continuous cycle of vengeance. So stopping at one tooth for one tooth, in actuality that was an improvement over what had been. But then what takes this ethic even further, is what Matthew describes here. Jesus advises actions that do NOT retaliate, not committing another wrong because of the first wrong. Instead Jesus proscribes acts that point out injustice. These responses are ones that shame the one in power, that point to the wrong and stand with dignity in the face of that wrong.

So without getting too far into the mores of that age, the scene Matthew is describing is one where someone in power has hit someone with less power, with the back of their hand on their “right” cheek, a gesture intended not only to sting, but to humiliate the one who was hit. So what does Jesus do? Jesus tells the one who has been hit to turn the other cheek, forcing this person to hit them not with the back of their hand, but the front, which would make them an equal, not a hit as master to servant but between equals. This gesture, this turning of the cheek is a standing up, not cowering down.

And this business about the cloaks and coats, if you were sued to the point where you are standing in court and you have nothing left to take except your coat and cloak, then giving this person everything you have leaves you naked. You are standing there, standing in the court, in front of God and everyone, quite literally. But this nakedness, again according to the mores of that day and place, this would not be a shame on you, but a shame on the one who sued you. The shame is on the one who took everything, the one who has now left you with nothing. Again, this action is a pointing toward justice, pointing out injustice, not for the sake of committing one more wrong for the wrong done to you, but pointing to a higher right.

And it is fitting that we hear this passage during Black History Month in part because the civil rights movement in this country succeeded because of the way of non-violence. This was not a movement that was passive, but fought in a way that means the salvation not only of the oppressed, but the oppressor. This is not a God that wants anyone to remain in their sin, whether that is sin that hurts an individual, or the sorts of sins that hurt all of us, as racism did and does still. God is calling all of us home, the strong and the weak, the vulnerable and the powerful.

Because this is a God who wants us to love as God loves. This God loves us all. That is what this “perfection” that Matthew speaks of is like, a perfection, a heaven if you will, a beloved community where we all belong.

–St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Macon, Georgia

Mental Illness in the Church

[Note: This is the second in a three-part series of articles written several years ago for a local publication. The purpose was to do some education about mental health, especially for a church audience. I thought it might be good to revisit.]

We bring food.  We knit prayer shawls.  We call or text or email or even Facebook and tell people that we are thinking about them and praying for them.

These are some ways in which our churches respond to people in need.  We signal to the people around us that we care, that we are available, that we hurt with them, and that we want to help if we can.

This is how we respond to deaths in families.  It is how we respond to heart attacks, surgeries, and all manner of scary physical illnesses.  The tough part is this: for many people, their faith community seems absent when the illness in question is not “physical.”

We understand heart disease.  We know lots of people that have had to have their gall bladder removed.  And even though many of us are aware that there are people in our churches who suffer from depression, addiction, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, we do not tend to respond in the same way.

We don’t bring food.  We don’t knit prayer shawls.

Sometimes we don’t respond at all.

But we are called as people of faith to do more.

An important aspect of Jesus’s ministry was one of healing and of bringing people back into relationship with God and the people of God.  Jesus did this not with a spirit of fear, but a spirit of compassion for those who were hurting and vulnerable.

So when Jesus saw a leper, he reached out to touch them.  When Jesus saw someone who could not walk, Jesus healed them.  When Jesus saw the children, some of the most vulnerable members of that society, Jesus said, “Let them come to me.”  There was not fear in Christ’s response, only compassion.

But sometimes, especially with mental illnesses, there is fear.  Most of that fear is our lack of understanding.  Most of us have some understanding of illnesses such as depression or anxiety because we may have felt this way at some point.  It is more difficult to be unafraid when someone tells us that they or their loved one has schizophrenia or autism.

And then we hear Jesus’s voice saying to us, “Peace.  Be still.”  And even though we may not understand, we are called to react with compassion and caring.  And even though there is a part of us that wonders why such an illness would happen, we are called to be open to where God is working in our life and in the life of this person and family who is hurting.

We should not blame the person or the family.

Jesus tells his disciples as much in John 9 when the disciples ask, “Who sinned?” when confronted with a man who was blind from birth.  And Jesus responds, “Neither this man nor his parents.”  And then Jesus reorients us to acting with compassion, not judgment.

We should be compassionate to the whole family because like any other illness, a mental illness affects them too.  We can bring food (because they may be going back and forth to the hospital and have a tough time attending to household chores).  We can bring prayer shawls or flowers to let that person and their family know that we care.  We can pray for them, for peace, for comfort, and for healing.

And in our churches, we should be compassionate to folks with mental illnesses just as we would with any other illness.

What does become more difficult is that some illnesses, especially addictions, become very difficult for families to weather.  And I would argue that at times, family members must set strong boundaries with other family members about their need to be in treatment in order to protect themselves and their families.

Remember, mental illnesses express themselves in thoughts and behavior.  The ill person themselves may not be thinking clearly and may behave in ways that are uncharacteristic for them.  Many older adults with diseases like dementia have personality changes.

This does become an area where as supportive friends and church family, we must be careful with our own limits and boundaries.  For example, it is fine to express our care and love and God’s care and love for the person who is ill and for the struggle of their family.  But we need to be discerning about how or even if we need to intervene in some way.

Just because we believe that we may know the right action to take in a situation, does not mean that we do.  There are times when those of us on the outside may even disagree with a family’s decision, but disagreeing does not mean not showing care and concern.

Oftentimes without being inside of that family, we will not know the day-to-day struggles.  We will not know what has been tried and what would not suit this particular family.  But we can show God’s love for people who are hurting.

And finally, as leaders within the community of faith, whether clergy or lay leaders, we should have an idea of the local resources available to people with mental illnesses and addictive diseases and their families.  These referrals will ideally be people who are trusted and will provide good care to the people in our congregations.