We Are As Sick As Our Secrets
Dear Friends, Feb. 3, 2012
Here at NLEC you hear us say again and again that churches are not doing enough for the homeless in our regions. If you watch Channel 24 you have probably heard it for years; to be a Christian is to obey Jesus by sheltering Him in the stranger, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and visiting those sick or in prison (Mt. 25:31-46). Today I want to talk about what I believe is one of the primary reasons Christians don’t open their church doors to the homeless. There is a social stigma regarding mental illness and disability.
Christians, like other Americans, and sometimes in ways that are worse than other Americans, are afraid of people with diseases like schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, those who are clinically depressed, and those suffering from a mental disability or developmental disability. Persons with mental illness or disability very often don’t feel welcome in the church where they were born. If the illness develops as they grow up, the confusion they feel is met with confusion by friends and loved ones, and the church becomes a place to be feared rather than a place where they are welcomed.
I can identify with my brothers and sisters in Christ who are afraid of disorders and disabilities. I certainly don’t claim to be the most tolerant person in the world. I was that kid on the playground making fun of the “slow” kid. I too am impatient and angry and fearful very often. As a young man, I myself was diagnosed with clinical depression and placed on medication. I didn’t want to take the meds, my wife had to lovingly coax me into taking them. Over time I improved to where I no longer needed them.
The years I’ve spent serving alongside homeless Christians with mental illness and disability have marked me for the rest of my life. People whom I love have suffered violence (but thankfully not death or impairment) from some with a diagnosis who lied about the nature of their condition. I watched my mother get slapped in the face by an angry woman with a severe mental disorder. And yet I’ve also been marked by the great love, mercy, and patience I have witnessed from those in recovery. I’ve experienced a level of courage, honesty, and resilience among these people that is unparalleled in any church of “normal” people I’ve ever attended on Sunday.
I don’t think I was really awakened to the nature of mental disorders and how I should respond until my best friend decided to stop taking his medication. My friend had been diagnosed with a form of bipolar along with an anxiety disorder and moderate brain damage from injury. He’s probably one of the smartest and funnest guys to be around that I’ve ever known. There came a time when I had to drive him to his therapist and do an intervention with him. He was not sleeping or eating, and he was having suicidal thoughts. I and other members of my church were so worried about him. He was on the line between suicide and sort of caring for himself, but only because we were around to remind him to lay down and drink water.
I remember when we sat there in the therapist’s office together and my friend Joseph (not his real name) was so lucid and clear in his speech in answer to questions, that I helplessly watched as he almost talked himself out of the help he needed. InChicago, in order to receive inpatient treatment you have to demonstrate that you are a danger to yourself or others. He denied that he was suicidal and he wouldn’t relate the thoughts he was telling us. Finally I asked the therapist if Joseph could leave the room. They both agreed. I described in detail all the symptoms we’d observed for weeks, how he could not manage his meds himself and how suicidal he’d been at times. The therapist agreed to have him hospitalized.
I felt like I was betraying my friend, even as I was helping him. That only increased as I and members of my church went to visit Joseph in the psych unit on and off for weeks. For some reason, though there was a large yard outside, the staff would never let him or the other patients outside. We watched as winter turned to spring and yet Joseph couldn’t go outside. Finally his meds were straightened out and they let him go home. I was there to pick him up upon release, and I still felt guilty. Our church demonstrated true friendship, and in the months and years that followed he has thrived and excelled in so many ways. He is fully recovering and even tapering off his meds now. I consider him a hero because of what he journeyed through, and I’m so blessed to have been a part of it. Like me he’s not perfect, and though we don’t live close to each other any more I still consider his one of my most valuable friendships.
Along this journey of intervention, hospitalization, and recovery my eyes were opened to so many others who lacked the kind of support Joseph has. Some lack it because they want to struggle alone. But this one brief journey taught me that mental illness and disability are not things to be feared, but are opportunities for the power of Christ to be revealed in miraculous ways. Those suffering are all around us in society and in the church. Listen to these statistics from the booklet “Mental Illness and Faith Community Outreach” from Mental Illness Ministries (miministries.org),
“According to the National Institute of Health about one in four people have a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. One in 17 suffers with persistent and severe mental illness. Death by suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24 and over 90% of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. Four of the ten leading causes of disability are mental disorders.
At least one third of people who are homeless have serious mental illness. According to Department of Justice reports, over 50% of the people in prisons and jails have mental illnesses. Many persons with mental illness lack adequate housing, lack job opportunities, or lack basic needs such as essential health care and supportive services. Some are living in nursing homes or institutions that only provide basic services or worse. Others are living in family homes or by themselves, feeling isolated and disconnected to society.”(pgs. 4-5)
As a society we don’t like suffering. We are in collective denial about this issue, and even those suffering from it would like to deny it and often do deny it on and off. Family members, preachers, politicians, doctors, social workers, old people, young people, have all suffered in the past or are currently suffering. So many are on medication now for everything from severe depression to a bipolar disorder that we don’t even ask about it really. Perhaps we reason that nobody needs to know. The only time it becomes a problem is when someone is adversely effected with it, or when at least one addiction makes things worse. Then nobody can deny something is wrong. But like it or not we collectively suffer by our denial and pushing each other away. The toll this takes on our workforce, on our behavior as families, and our ability to worship and serve is huge. Denial only makes things worse. With denial comes greater suffering, which only perpetuates an insane endless spiral of pain.
The good news about mental illness is that despite the social stigma, those suffering can be treated and come to live happy and stable lives. They can even recover from severe disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar to the point that they can serve as sources of recovery for other people. This is what is happening in clinical mental health services these days. People who have been sick and homeless for many years are getting housed and connected with ongoing care in exciting new ways. Men and women who I’ve known since childhood who were what is termed chronically homeless have been housed and are living independent lives now. The kind of suffering they’ve endured and come back from gives me hope that mental disorders and disability need not end with suicide or endless squalor. And these men and women represent a faith in God to me that gives me strength to keep on going. They are true heroes.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came not for those who are well, but for those who know they are sick. He came not for those who think they can see, but those who know they are blind. This places the neediest among us in the best place to receive recovery and then become agents of change within our communities. What I’ve learned and am learning is that God uses people who have perceived weaknesses to bring strength and recovery to others who are in fact hiding their own needs. This is perfectly illustrated in the story in the gospel of John chapter 9. Jesus and his disciples are walking along and he sees a man blind from birth. His disciples as whether it was the man or his parents who had sinned. This sort of thinking is common among people trying to make sense of a disability. Someone must have sinned, so who was it? And Jesus answers, “”Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
I think it is interesting that neither this man nor his parents sought Jesus out for a healing. Jesus chose to heal him to reveal God’s works in him. The man had to do his part. He obeyed Jesus’ word to go and wash in the pool of Siloam (9:7) He returned able to see and he himself becomes a visible sign of God’s works. Just like those persons today entering recovery, he found opposition from those unable to accept his changed condition. The assumption was that people who are disabled all their lives should not just suddenly reenter society!
The man’s parents had to refuse to get involved because of their fear of the religious authorities. And this man is cast out of the synagogue because of his story. He tells the truth and has to pay dearly for it in the very place where he should be loved and welcomed. (9:34) This man’s healing serves to expose the religious community that was much more content with blindness, lies, and isolation than with truth and evidence of the miraculous. Jesus said,
“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.” (9:39-41 NRSV)
The authors of “A Solution-Focused Approach to Case Management and Recover” (familiesinsociety.org) wrote that people with mental illness and or disability need to experience themselves as “empowered agents of change rather than passive recipients of mental health services.” Every person is different, and no one person’s recovery will look the same. There are some common things involved: hope, coping skills, empowerment, and supportive social networks. I believe that rather than full of fear, denial, and opposition our churches can be facilitators for recovery. Many churches are already doing this. Let’s learn from them and spread the good word!
When we choose to support those in recovery, we have the opportunity to understand change and time differently. One principle in solution-focused therapy is that “change is inevitable and continuous.” As hard as life gets, it never stays the same continually. We learn to identify improvements and successes where we hadn’t seen them previously. Change is God’s opportunity, not necessarily the loss we tend to perceive it to be. Change does not take God by surprise. In thinking of miracles it is easy to see them as a supernatural change that fixes everything and makes everything better forever. In the New Testament, Jesus miracles simply served to set people free and draw attention to the One whom God sent, the living bread of heaven. As with the blind man in John 9, miracles would often set people’s expectations on their head, as when Jesus would heal on the Sabbath or not simply heal but offer forgiveness of sins.
There is no greater miracle than the realization that Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world, has conquered death. All suffering sets before us the reality of our demise. Our bodies cry out “I am not invincible. I am not impervious to pain.” And when in pain it is easy to feel alone and forgotten. When we look at John chapter 11, we find the family of Jesus’ close friends inBethanysuffering. Lazarus was sick and dying, and they send word to Jesus, who incidentally was in Galilee after being rejected inJudeain previous chapters. Before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus stayed inGalileeuntil his friend had died. He gives the word to his disciples that his beloved friend’s sickness “is for God’s glory that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The disciples know that they are heading right back to where he would be killed. And Jesus speaks to this fear:
“Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”” (John 11:9-15, NRSV)
Jesus was well aware of his friend Lazarus’ condition, and he knew his own mortality. He did not fear death for himself or his disciples. He was simply waiting on God’s time. This, my friends, is real courage and confidence. His eyes were on what God would accomplish. This challenges our understanding of time, the nature of miracles, and healing itself. The Lord of time challenges us to be patient and to begin to see all changes differently. Jesus Christ, victor over death and hell, invites us to love with a view toward what God will accomplish. Even as I write this I am in emotional pain because a good friend of my family’s is very angry and hurt. We cannot seem to come to agreement and in the near future we see only separation. But I have to speak the truth about this situation aloud to myself, “I look forward to the day when we will again speak kindly to each other, when we will remember the good times we’ve had and marvel at all the good God has done in our lives. I choose to look past the present anger to the good change I know is coming.”
“We are as sick as our secrets.” The only way to become agents of Christ’s transforming power is to give up hiding our true selves. Many people are afraid of mental illness because it reveals their own frailty. In order to be given sight we must admit we are blind. In order to know that Jesus was not crazy, we have to accept that God was secure enough in Himself that he emptied himself and suffered humiliation, torture and death for our sake. Jesus’ claims to be God were connected to his intent to bear witness, suffer and die. (Jn. 10:17-18, 20) If we claim to be His people, we must know that our connection to Christ involves revealing our true selves. We are weak, vulnerable, and in many kinds of pain. To admit this is to admit that we have something to share with the mentally ill among us.
It is my privilege to acknowledge my brothers and sisters in Christ in the audience and watching or listening at home who are not defined by their mental illness or disability. You each have a unique calling and ability to bear witness to Christ. I am blessed by the image of God in you. Some of you do not know what a blessing you are and I’m here to say simply, “Thank you.”
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris Rice
A Brief list of resources consulted
1. Marcia Webb, Toward a Theology of Mental Illness,
2. “A Solution-Focused Approach to Case Management and Recovery With Consumers Who Have a Severe Mental Disability” by Gilbert J. Greene, David C. Kondrat, Mo Yee Lee, Jeanne Clement, Hope Siebert, Richard A. Menzer, & Shelly R. Pinnell, from the Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, www.familiesinsociety.org.
3. Mental Illness Ministries, Chicago Archdiocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities
Website has useful documents as resources and support.
I used “Mental Illness and Parish Outreach” in my sermon,
4. Pathways to Promise, an interfaith cooperative located inSt. Louis, offering many good resources. http://www.pathways2promise.org
5. National Alliance on Mental Illness, http://www.nami.org,
6. National Healthcare for the Homeless Council, http://www.nhchc.org/