I have been in the midst of a struggle recently. And my struggle has been with my place in church and Christianity. I will say, as someone living with a mental illness, I do not feel welcome in church. But I feel still Christian. And I am living in that space between the two, where church is no longer a positive spiritual space for me but I want to be in a place where I can connect with the divine. One of the things I’ve done to rectify this is my family and I have started a group with others for those who feel outside from the church. But is this enough?
An old friend from both college and seminary shared an article yesterday on Facebook that speaks to this tension. The author must have an anxiety disorder and she mentions that this is not uncommon, as about 18 million people have some sort of anxiety disorder. However, churches do not cater to this. Nor do they acknowledge it. Instead, they exacerbate the disorder with things like greeting times, with the new focus on loud music and soaring lights and the like, and with the maniacal focus on joining a small group. All of these situations can freak out an introvert, let alone someone with an anxiety disorder (by the way, an introvert does not necessarily have anxiety and an extrovert can also have anxiety). And churches do not care and, even worst, we are not even on their radar screen. We are simply not who the church wants in their pews, despite lip service to the contrary.
And this begins to get at my difficulty. I want to be Christian and do not feel like I have a space to do so; at least, I do not have a space where my mental illness is taken seriously. And this gets even more apparent when you begin to talk to pastors about mental illness in their churches. As.Here/Hear has worked and grown, we have become more and more welcome in certain places. Churches are not one of those places; Christian “culture” is not one of those places. I frequently hear from pastors that it is great what we do, but that their church does not have a problem with mental illness (despite the statistics stating that they are wrong). Really, what they are saying is that they have not actually engaged people on a level real enough for people to feel comfortable sharing their mental illness; their church is a place where they must keep the illness hidden. Society tells us this day after day and, predictably, the church follows suit.
This goes further when I begin to think about all of the people who have told me that I need to simply “get over” my mental illness, that God wants to “heal” me, and/or that I just need to think differently. This just shows, though, that these people simply do not get my condition or those that bear the notoriously broad mark of “mentally ill.” In fact, I have only heard one sermon actually talk about mental illness at all in the church (that I did not give), but it was not the main point and the pastor, at the end, said, “I struggled with anxiety and went to counseling and am fine now. I encourage you to get better as well.” This attitude, so prevalent, does not understand that I am the way that I am and I am not getting better. In fact, it also states that the church cannot love me in my sickness, will not be the hospital that the early church called itself to be. No, now the church has embraced the place of the easy, the inconsequential, the stale, and, if we’re honest, the non-Christlike.
You see, Christ is my saving hope for the church. I really think and believe that the church will come along on these issues and others because it returns to being a body of Christ instead of being what it is today. And it is the Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, that gives me that hope. Holy Week starts with Jesus coming in on a donkey, riding in like a king and spending the week questioning the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees and other religious leaders, questions the place of the empire of Rome, and ultimately physically disrupts the Temple practices.
This leads to the crucifixion. And the crucifixion is the point where God feels what I feel in my depression: where God forsakes God, where God abandons Jesus, where Jesus is completely isolated and alone. If you ever have crippling depression or a panic attack or are caught in a cycle of addiction, then you know what this means. You know what it is to feel complete abandonment, to feel like you are worthless, like you have been forsaken, godforsaken. And that’s the space that I inhabit, as the godforsaken. Following Jesus into the tomb to be in the dark, laying there for help. It is in the darkness that God comes and raises both Jesus and myself, but still we are not allowed to go back to the Temple, to the religious institutions, to the religious leaders, because these places still reject Jesus. They still reject me. But it is by hanging my lot with Jesus, the godforsaken, that I can find hope, a hope that the church fails to communicate.
And, so, like the leper that Jesus came to time and again, I stand on the outside of the church, of the religious authority because I am for all intents and purposes unclean. The way that God has made me, the way that my brain is wired, the experiences that I go through, disqualify me. I am asked to set aside my illness to enter the church, while Jesus comes to the leper and asks him to simply be loved. That’s where my hope lies for the church, the church that has so badly scarred myself, my kids, my wife, my friends, my fellow ill. Yes, we hold out hope that like Jesus, the church will rise from its tomb and realize that the godforsaken are still loved by God, and that God is actually found with the lepers, the ill, not in the cathedrals and warehouses and buildings that we continue to call church.
So, yes, I have hope. I have hope in the midst of spiritual struggle. I have hope because I do actually believe in Easter, in the transformational power of a God that chooses life and to embrace those on the outside. Maybe one day the church will emulate that and I will find my way back….I hope.