I came across this image a couple of days ago and it describes what my days are like sometimes: “I came, I saw, I forgot what I was doing, retraced my steps, got distracted on my way back, have no idea what’s going on and now I have to pee.” Have you ever had days like that? I suppose we all have. When that happens to you every now and then, it’s kind of funny and we can laugh at it. In fact, we should laugh at it. It’s okay to make fun of ourselves. But it’s not nearly so funny when every day becomes just like that. And some of us have lived through times in our lives when nothing makes sense and you just don’t know what’s going on.
A few years ago, Bell Canada began to promote what it now known as Bell Let’s Talk Day. The whole campaign is to promote the idea that it’s time to talk about mental illness because hiding it and pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t do anyone any good. I could not agree more. And often, I have used a Sunday close to Bell Let’s Talk day to talk about my own struggles with mental illness and how we respond to that as the Church of Jesus Christ. Bell Let’s Talk day this year is on Wednesday, January 26. So, let’s talk.
Why talk? Because, as it says in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 (NIV):
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
What that means is that we are all in this together. We talk because we are connected by faith and we are connected by the Spirit. We are called to be there for one another through the good times and the tough times, the celebrations and the sorrows. We’re all in this together as the Church of Jesus Christ for as it says in 1 Corinthians 12:26 (NIV), “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” That’s what it means, in a very practical way, to be one in Christ.
This is an important topic for me because, as many of you know, I too suffer from mental illness. In 2009 I was diagnosed with and Operational Stress Injury much like PTSD. That was a horrible time in my life, coming to grips with it and getting treatment were very difficult. But one of the things that helped the most was that there were many caring, compassionate and loving people in this congregation who walked with me through some pretty terrible times, when the Valley of the Shadow of Death became more than a metaphor. Or, as I described it back then, when I was in the pit.
You might wonder what happened, how I fell into the pit. So let me tell you. You don’t spend almost three decades in the military service and pastoral ministry without being wounded in one way or another. You think you’re okay. You think you’re handling it all just fine. I know that’s what I thought and then, in the spring of 2009, it all began to unravel.
First came the anxiety, the inability to relax, the constant nervousness. I just couldn’t calm down. My life felt like it was spinning out of control Then came to phobias. I remember the agoraphobia, the fear of being in public places like shopping malls, movie theatres, public transit; anywhere outside the house. And the pit got deeper.
And then the agoraphobia began to affect my work because the church became a fearful place for me because it too is public. I remember sitting in Albuna room, which used to be our offices, and I’d be too afraid to come out into the sanctuary. Somehow I always did but it became increasingly difficult. And the pit got deeper.
And then came the nightmares. They came every night. They increased to where O was having three or four nightmares every night. It got the point where I was afraid to go to sleep because I was terrified of the nightmares and so for months I tried to function on an hour two hours of sleep every night. And the pit just got deeper.
As the pit deepened, I began to question everything. I questioned my vocation as a pastor. I questioned my ability to be a good father. I questioned if I was a good husband and even if I wanted to be married anymore.
Looking back at it, it’s clear that I was experiencing mental illness but I couldn’t see it then – or maybe I just didn’t want to see it. People who are going through it seldom do.
The good news is that I eventually got the help I needed. Veterans Affairs got me hooked up with the Operational Stress Injury Clinic at Parkwood Hospital in London. I remember driving there for my first appointment. The drive was hard but it wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was getting out of my car to walk through the front doors of the clinic. That’s because to walk through those doors was to admit to myself that I had a serious problem and I didn’t want to do that. I sat in the car for a long time. I almost drove away twice but I didn’t. I don’t why I did it but eventually I got out of the car and walked through the front doors and up to the OSI clinic. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life but it was also a major step on the road to healing and recovery.
That was twelve years ago. And now, when I look back at it, I have to be honest and say that I really don’t recognize the person I was back then. It’s hard for me to conceive that I said and did some of the things that I said and did. It almost as if there was a different person walking around in my skin. But it wasn’t. It was me in the pit and that pit, for better or for worse, is part of who I am and it will always be. I’ve had relapses when I fell back into the pit and I know that they will come again but I now have the skills to recognize when I am at risk and what I have to do to get back on my feet. I still see a therapist every three months. It is very helpful.
THE CHURCH’S ROLE IN MENTAL HEALTH
Here’s the reality we face. Approximately one in twenty-five adults, experience a serious mental illness in any given year that substantially interferes with their quality of life. Note that I’m not talking about someone just feeling sad or going through a normal grief experience. I’m talking about clinical episodes. Then there is this statistic: one in six adults experience an anxiety disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias at some point during their life. That’s a massive segment of our society. And keep in mind that the stats for Christians are the same as for the general public. As sisters and brothers in Christ, we are just as vulnerable as everyone else. And yet I think it’s also true that things such as suicide, depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse are topics that many Christians find hard to talk about.
Why is that? Sometimes, some well-meaning – yet misguided – people think that if you really had enough faith, you should be able to just pray the illness away. Can we pray away a mental health condition? Can we pray for a change in the serotonin levels in our brains, a major chemical related to depression? Can we pray away the loss of a loved one and the loneliness that we feel? Can we pray that our genetic vulnerabilities will be shifted so that they won’t affect us? Can we pray that the God will take away the need for the life-saving medication that we need but whose side effect is an increased susceptibility to depression or anxiety?
We can pray for any of those things. And sometimes those prayers are answered at face value and God miraculously heals us. I do believe in miracles and I do believe in healings. But I don’t believe that they happen all the time. And I don’t understand why some are healed and others aren’t. Nor do I believe that if we just had more faith that our prayers would be more likely to be answered to our satisfaction.
But I do believe that God answers prayers. When I was in the pit, my prayers changed over time. Yes, I started with prayers like, “O God, take this away from me. O God, stop these nightmares so I can get some sleep. O God, I just don’t want to feel this way anymore so take away the pain.” But the nightmares persisted and the pain did not go away.
Over time, however, my prayers changed. I began to offer prayers of thanks: For God’s presence. For my family, for Ruth and the kids. For a supportive church family and the people who walked with me through the dark valleys. I have to admit that I didn’t always feel particularly thankful but I also learned that I could not allow my feelings to dictate my actions. And so, I gave thanks even if I didn’t feel like it. And once I had thanked God, I then asked God for things. But it was no longer asking God to take things away: the pain, the anxieties and the nightmares. It prayed for God to bring people into my life who could support me and to guide my feet on the path of healing that God wanted me to walk.
The church had a tremendous role in my recovery. Some of you here today were absolutely integral to my healing. And I know beyond a shadow of the doubt that if and when I find myself back in the pit again, that you will be there for me once more.
What can we do as the church of Jesus Christ to walk with our brothers and sisters who experience the debilitating impacts of mental illness. Let’s talk about that. There are three things I want to highlight. Here they are. The church should seek, first of all, to relieve suffering; second, to reveal Christ to those who need him; and third, to be a place where lives are restored. Let’s take a few minutes to look at each of these.
First, the church needs to help relieve suffering. Remember that verse from 1 Corinthians 12:26 (NIV) that we read near the beginning of this message? It still applies: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” We are called to be with each other in our suffering because we are all part of one body. When one of us hurts, we all hurt.
But we don’t need to stay hurt. The church can be a place of relief for as we read in Ephesians 4:11-13 (NIV):
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Jesus gave us to each other and he gave us the people that we need in the church to bring healing. Look what we have. Paul writes that we have apostles and prophets and evangelists and, more importantly for our purposes today, pastors and teachers. All of these people have a role to play in the church. Why? So that the body of Christ may be built up. If we want the church to be built up, then each part of the church must be built up because when one hurts we all hurt.
The church is called to be a place of healing. But to be a place of healing for people with mental illness, we need to talk about it. We need to let people know that it’s okay for Christians to experience mental illness. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have enough faith. It doesn’t mean that you haven’t prayed hard enough. You’re just experiencing pain in your life and that’s okay. People need to know that the church is a safe place for those who are mentally ill.
But let’s be clear about something else. They church is not alone in bringing healing to people with mental illness. There are also counsellors out there who offer talk therapy and teach coping skills that help people get through the day, even if it’s only one day at a time. And there are other mental health professionals. Some people need medication for anxiety, depression and insomnia. Some people use it temporarily to get them through a particularly rough patch but others are on it long term. It is not up to us to judge people who need medication. That is between them and their doctors. Our mission is to support.
We are called to relieve suffering. We are also called to reveal Christ because he is the rock upon which we stand. I want to emphasize what Jesus said in the passage from Luke 4:18-19 (NIV) where Jesus said:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
What this tells us is that Jesus can be part of the healing and we need to remind people of that. Recovery from mental illness is not just about mental health professionals and pharmaceuticals and therapists. That can certainly be part of it. But somewhere in there, we also need to encounter Christ. For he brings a different kind of healing. His Spirit touches our souls and brings light to dark inner places. He brings good news to the poor and sets the captives free. He gives sight to the blind and releases the oppressed. And trust me, when you are going through mental illness, you feel trapped and oppressed and it’s often so hard to believe that there will ever be a way out. But there is.
When the church reveals Christ to people, it reminds them that they are never alone, that even when they walk through the darkest valleys there is someone by their side. But here’s the irony, it is often when people are the most impacted by mental illness that they have the most trouble experiencing God’s presence. As the church we need to remind them that Jesus is there whether you feel him or not. He is still there.
As the church we are called to relieve suffering, to reveal Christ and, finally, we are called to restore lives. How does that happen? Actually, it’s not something that we do. It’s what God does. Our role is to teach and remind people of the things that will help them to keep connected with God. We call those things spiritual disciplines.
The Bible talks about various spiritual disciplines but I’m going to highlight four of them for you right now. The first one is prayer. We read this in Ephesians 6:18 (NIV): “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” It’s interesting that when you read the Bible, when Jesus was going through a tough time what’s the first thing he always did? He always went off by himself to a quiet place and prayed. If it was good for Jesus, imagine how good it can be for you.
We are told to pray at all times for all things. Prayer is conversation with God. It’s about getting in touch with God and spending intentional time with him. It’s not just about telling God what you want and need. It’s also about being still and listening for God to speak to your heart. I’m not saying that you’ll hear words – although sometimes that happens – but I am saying that God will nudge you and direct you in the way that you should go. The more we loo for that nudging, the more we are aware of it.
The second spiritual discipline is Bible reading. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV) says this: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Bible is filled with knowledge and guidance. In it are all the things you need to know for life. That’s why I constantly stress the need for Bible study and daily devotions. The more you know the Bible, the better equipped you are when it’s your turn to walk through the dark valley.
The third spiritual discipline is worship. Listen to what the Bible says in Ephesians 5:18-20 (NIV):
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Addictions may make you feel better for a little while but they are not answer to your problems. They are only like putting bandaids on broken legs. But the Holy Spirit is helpful in the long term. That Holy Spirit will lead you to sing and praise and make music in your heart as you worship God. This will lift your spirit as you discover that you are loved and cherished and that you are not alone. I know that worship has not been quite as easy these past couple of years because of Covid but whether you are worshipping in person or online, I don’t think God cares very much. God just wants your worship because it will help you though the dark valleys.
Prayer. Bible reading. Worship. Finally, the fourth spiritual discipline is service which is getting out there to help others. Galatians 5:13 (NIV) says this: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” We are called to serve each other with humility and love. I’ve always found that when I am serving others I have less time to dwell on my own problems. That’s a hard lesson because when you’re going through mental health issues, one of the last things you want to do is reach out to others. Often you just want to hide away from the world. That’s because you hardly have enough energy for yourself. Where is the energy going to come from to help others? It’s at those times that you draw upon the energy that comes from outside yourself, the energy of the Holy Spirit. It is that energy that enables you to reach out humbly and in love to others whom you are called to serve in Jesus’ name.
There you have it. We started off by saying, “Let’s talk!” We have talked and that’s good. I’ve been honest about my own mental health issues. I’m not ashamed of them and I’m not afraid of them. And if you want to talk to me about yours, just let me know. And if you need the number of a good therapist, I can help with that too. Let’s keep talking about mental illness and what we in the church can do about it.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of the Universe, Maker of all things, we come to you on this day, thankful for our many gifts and talents. We come with different offices and tasks to perform for your glory. Each of us is a unique child looking towards you for fulfilment and peace. Encourage us to use our God given abilities for you. Encourage us to enable others to reach out in your name with their own special ministries. And, yet, we are not perfect. Forgive us for those times when we have tried to exclude others from your body by hurtful words or actions. You have called us to be one but we need your strength and wisdom to be truly united.
Thank you for the assurance that we can call upon you at any time knowing that you will hear, acknowledge, and answer our prayers. We are so grateful that we do not have to be afraid of circumstances or other people because you are with each of us, by our side and in our hearts. Enable us to trust you completely, without fear, without doubt, and with complete confidence in the power of your love.
We lift up in prayer those who mourn this day. Whether they have suffered the loss of a loved one, the loss of health, relationship, job, pet, security or safety, bless them in their time of sadness. We ask for your healing in this time of their grief. We would ask for the strength that we will need to support them and care for them through these difficult times.
We remember those who are sick and pray that your healing Spirit would rest upon them in a powerful way. We remember especially Carol, Rachel, Mark, Ron, Jerry, Sheryll and others for their health and recovery.
Holy God, we thank you that you have made us who we are and that, regardless of our failures, we are still of infinite value in your eyes. Fulfill in us the purpose you intend for us. Grant us, also, a clearer vision of our ministry tomorrow. Thank you for your ever-present grace and for all the things that you will accomplish in our lives by the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
January 23, 2022 / Epiphany 3
Psalm 19; Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
CALL TO WORSHIP
How clearly the heavens reveal the glory of God.
God’s glory is written in the sky.
Each day announces God’s love to the following day.
Each night repeats it to the next.
Speak your Word to us, O God, in our worship.
Enliven us for faithful living.
We gather, in humility, to worship and give you glory, O God of the Ages. Your timeless Word surrounds and infills us. Help us to discover anew the meaning of faith in life. Enable us to live your Word with compassion and grace. Remind us, once again, of your Gentle Spirit calling us to share the good news with the poor, to free the prisoners, to give sight to the blind and announce your coming into our community. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
God of Mercy, like the people of old, we have strayed from your way. We have forgotten your Law and your Love. They have been buried in the rubble of broken communities and displaced families. We have neglected to speak your truth in our fear of danger and exclusion. We have chosen the easy road. Enable us to dig deeply into our lives to find the goodness that you have planted there. Heal our hidden wounds and the hurts that exist between us. Cleanse our hands, our hearts, our spirits. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
As Jesus Christ brought the truth to the people of his day, so his Spirit comes to us offering forgiveness and new life. When we confess our sins, God does forgive. By the power of Jesus’ wounds we have been healed, washed in the blood of the Lamb who gave his life for all.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
We offer our gifts, reminded that they come from you. Because of our tithes, may the poor hear the good news, may the captives find their freedom, may the blind see and the oppressed be liberated. Remind us that we are not only called to give. We are called to put our gifts to use for your service in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Go, in the name of Jesus, to love and serve others.
Go in the power of the Spirit to share good news of Christ’s salvation.
And may God’s love complete us as we walk the path that is our’s in Jesus’ name.