Yesterday, Saddleback Church in California hosted a one-day conference called Mental Health and the Church. The event’s stated purpose was to “call the Church to action on behalf of those living with mental illness, equip lay and pastoral leadership, and stand side-by-side with those who suffer.”
The event was encouraging on so many levels. First, it was encouraging to see a united Church stand together in this issue. Although different denominations were represented, I heard one voice: the community of faith needs to be the hands and feet of Jesus as we serve and seek out those that are hurting. After all of the controversy surrounding World Vision’s decision, it was refreshing to see a Church united in love to serve and care. Sure, our solutions may be different, but the goal is the same: to invite in, to have compassion, to weep with, to impart hope. Many times, out of fear or ignorance, we have excluded and shamed those struggling with mental illness. That has to change.
Second, it was encouraging to see brave men and women step forward in the public eye and share about their own experience with mental illness. There were many tears shed on that stage: tears of grief, tears of exhaustion, tears of joy in hope. The courage it took for many to bring these stories into the light was awe-inspiring. It confirmed a desire in my heart to work with the hurting and the broken…to sit down and hear their stories, to weep with them, and to impart hope. I’m thankful for their courage to put a face and name to this specific form of suffering.
Lastly, while the conference gave some helpful practical advice (that I’ll be taking back to my Church), it spurred me on to think about creative ways that we, as the Church, can partner with others in the community to give people the help that they need. Statistically, the Church is still the first place people come to get help with mental illness. I couldn’t believe that when I heard it. We have an obligation and an opportunity to impart the person of Jesus and the hope of the Kingdom of God to these brothers and sisters. Simply put, we must do better. One panelist said, “If we reject people with mental illness coming through our doors, they think God has rejected them.” We are Christ’s ambassadors, and as such, we must welcome, and serve, and include, and love.
Consider this statement from Paul on unity within the Church.
“21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
How does this change our approach to those in our congregations that have mental illness? How does it change our approach to those in our communities with mental illness? The Gospel calls us to honor, not shame. The Gospel calls us to seek out and serve the weak, not marginalize them. I am convinced that we are faced with a great opportunity to serve, to love, to welcome. How does this look in your church context? How can we do better?
We’ve had our fair share of struggles with the institution of “the church.” Especially the unique challenges that come with a “mega church” (still weird to say!) that has experienced rapid growth in attendance, but not necessarily membership. When everyone starting calling Donald Miller out for his blog post about his frustrations with the institutional church, we saw a lot of where he was coming from.
Then I read this by Shauna Niequist: “She’s not a Megachurch. She’s my Sister’ and thought – yes. Yes, this is the way I feel about our church.
You see, this church is much more than a building. It is more than the size of weekly attendance. It is more than their celebrity status. It is much more than something we do on Sundays. Its identity cannot be found in those things because it is much, much more.
It is the people we call at midnight on a Saturday because we can’t go back to our own home.
It is the weekly dinners, the confessions, the griefs, the joys, the marriages, the babies.
It is the “band of brothers,” the community that the rest of the world longs for.
It is the pastors that take your call late at night because they care about you.
It is an extended family — the kind with all its quirks, all of its heartbreaks, yet wrapped up in a commitment to be “for you,” no matter how much that hurts.
We have been pretty banged up in this season, but it has been an opportunity for the Lord to show us how well this Church that the he has granted us, this family, loves us…and how much we love them. They are not perfect — no family is. But they have sacrificed time and spoken words of life into our weary family. We have felt more and more like sojourners on this road of life, but we know that we have fellow travelers alongside us…yearning for our true home.
“Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
The first human relationship we’re shown in Scripture, other than Adam and Eve, is Cain and Abel. It ends in murder and this simple response to God’s inquiry: “…am I my brother’s keeper?” The whole story of Israel reflects an oscillation between love and hatred of neighbor, with devastating consequences for Israel and her neighbors.
Thousands of years later, our response, though different in language in vocabulary, remains the same. We live as though our actions only affect us, and as if our brother’s actions only affect them. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
When we neglect time in prayer and in the Word, it affects us, yes. When we watch pornography, when we overeat, when we exalt the opinions of others, when we engage in sex before marriage…we immediately consider the short-term consequences for ME. Most of us see this and feel the nagging guilt. And somehow, we convince ourselves that it is okay as long as we are the only ones affected. We can handle the consequences. We are attuned to the “cause and effect” world that God has made.
But we are near-sighted, unable to see the effect on everyone around us: our spouse, our friends, our co-workers, our boss, our children. Suddenly, our sin kept in private is unleashed, devouring everyone around us. In the same way that a small act of kindness is “passed on,” small acts of evil are passed to everyone we touch.
But this attitude doesn’t stop there. In the same way, when we see our brother, sister, spouse, family member…giving in to the deceitfulness of sin, we look the other way. Left to myself, I am a “peacemaker,” valuing the comfort of staying out of conflict much more than the potentially uncomfortable consequences of rocking the boat and telling a brother or sister something they don’t want to hear. This is a constant battle for me. But if I truly consider myself my brother’s keeper, this is not an option, it is an obligation. Sure, it may not affect me directly, but it affects my sister, her spouse, her children, her co-workers…the consequences are endless. God’s pronouncement is that it is not good for man to be alone. He has created us FOR each other: for each other’s flourishing.
In the Kingdom of God, we ARE our brother’s keeper. This is a central part of our identity as we seek to fulfill the greatest commands to love God and love our neighbor. God’s very design demands that we consider our brother, and even prefer him. Consider Jesus. If he had preferred his reputation over love, he would not have reached out to the “untouchables” of society. And if he had preferred his comfort over love, he would never have subjected himself to the excruciating pain of the cross. The ripple effect of his choice to be his brother’s keeper has changed the course of history. And as partakers in the new creation and kingdom that Jesus instituted, we too embrace our calling to be our brother’s keeper.
Instead of choosing solitude, we choose the gathering of the saints. Instead of choosing to keep our sins to ourselves, we choose to bring them into the light, eliciting the encouragement and accountability of those around us. We choose to surround ourselves by true friends, those that love our holiness over our comfort. We choose to fight against the individualistic tendencies of this generation, choosing instead to be a hospitable people, welcoming and inviting. And as we embrace our true identity, our true humanity as our brother’s keeper, we serve as a fragrance of the knowledge of God to those around us.
(Excerpt from the book Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas)
Bono: My understanding of the Scriptures has been made simple by the person of Christ. Christ teaches that God is love. What does that mean? What it means for me: a study of the life of Christ. Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor. I don’t let my religious world get too complicated. I just kind of go: Well, I think I know what God is. God is love, and as much as I respond [sighs] in allowing myself to be transformed by that love and acting in that love, that’s my religion. Where things get complicated for me, is when I try to live this love. Now that’s not so easy.
Assayas: What about the God of the Old Testament? He wasn’t so “peace and love”?
Bono: There’s nothing hippie about my picture of Christ. The Gospels paint a picture of a very demanding, sometimes divisive love, but love it is. I accept the Old Testament as more of an action movie: blood, car chases, evacuations, a lot of special effects, seas dividing, mass murder, adultery. The children of God are running amok, wayward. Maybe that’s why they’re so relatable. But the way we would see it, those of us who are trying to figure out our Christian conundrum, is that the God of the Old Testament is like the journey from stern father to friend. When you’re a child, you need clear directions and some strict rules. But with Christ, we have access in a one-to-one relationship, for, as in the Old Testament, it was more one of worship and awe, a vertical relationship. The New Testament, on the other hand, we look across at a Jesus who looks familiar, horizontal. The combination is what makes the Cross.
Assayas: Speaking of bloody action movies, we were talking about South and Central America last time. The Jesuit priests arrived there with the gospel in one hand and a rifle in the other.
Bono: I know, I know. Religion can be the enemy of God. It’s often what happens when God, like Elvis, has left the building. [laughs] A list of instructions where there was once conviction; dogma where once people just did it; a congregation led by a man where once they were led by the Holy Spirit. Discipline replacing discipleship. Why are you chuckling?
Assayas: I was wondering if you said all of that to the Pope the day you met him.
Bono: Let’s not get too hard on the Holy Roman Church here. The Church has its problems, but the older I get, the more comfort I find there. The physical experience of being in a crowd of largely humble people, heads bowed, murmuring prayers, stories told in stained-glass windows
Assayas: So you won’t be critical.
Bono: No, I can be critical, especially on the topic of contraception. But when I meet someone like Sister Benedicta and see her work with AIDS orphans in Addis Ababa, or Sister Ann doing the same in Malawi, or Father Jack Fenukan and his group Concern all over Africa, when I meet priests and nuns tending to the sick and the poor and giving up much easier lives to do so, I surrender a little easier.
Assayas: But you met the man himself. Was it a great experience?
Bono: [W]e all knew why we were there. The Pontiff was about to make an important statement about the inhumanity and injustice of poor countries spending so much of their national income paying back old loans to rich countries. Serious business. He was fighting hard against his Parkinson’s. It was clearly an act of will for him to be there. I was oddly moved by his humility, and then by the incredible speech he made, even if it was in whispers. During the preamble, he seemed to be staring at me. I wondered. Was it the fact that I was wearing my blue fly-shades? So I took them off in case I was causing some offense. When I was introduced to him, he was still staring at them. He kept looking at them in my hand, so I offered them to him as a gift in return for the rosary he had just given me.
Assayas: Didn’t he put them on?
was completely intact. Flashbulbs popped, and I thought: “Wow! The Drop the Debt campaign will have the Pope in my glasses on the front page of every newspaper.”
Assayas: I don’t remember seeing that photograph anywhere, though.
Bono: Nor did we. It seems his courtiers did not have the same sense of humor. Fair enough. I guess they could see the T-shirts.
Later in the conversation:
Assayas: I think I am beginning to understand religion because I have started acting and thinking like a father. What do you make of that?
Bono: Yes, I think that’s normal. It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.
Assayas: I haven’t heard you talk about that.
Bono: I really believe we’ve moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace.
Assayas: Well, that doesn’t make it clearer for me.
Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.
Assayas: I’d be interested to hear that.
Bono: That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep s—. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.
Assayas: The Son of God who takes away the sins of the world. I wish I could believe in that.
Bono: But I love the idea of the Sacrificial Lamb. I love the idea that God says: Look, you cretins, there are certain results to the way we are, to selfishness, and there’s a mortality as part of your very sinful nature, and, let’s face it, you’re not living a very good life, are you? There are consequences to actions. The point of the death of Christ is that Christ took on the sins of the world, so that what we put out did not come back to us, and that our sinful nature does not reap the obvious death. That’s the point. It should keep us humbled. It’s not our own good works that get us through the gates of heaven.
Assayas: That’s a great idea, no denying it. Such great hope is wonderful, even though it’s close to lunacy, in my view. Christ has his rank among the world’s great thinkers. But Son of God, isn’t that farfetched?
Bono: No, it’s not farfetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off that hook. Christ says: No. I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet. I’m saying: “I’m the Messiah.” I’m saying: “I am God incarnate.” And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You’re a bit eccentric. We’ve had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don’t mention the “M” word! Because, you know, we’re gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you’re expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah. At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says: Oh, my God, he’s gonna keep saying this. So what you’re left with is: either Christ was who He said He was the Messiah or a complete nutcase. I mean, we’re talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson. This man was like some of the people we’ve been talking about earlier. This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had “King of the Jews” on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain! I can take it. I’m not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that’s farfetched
Bono later says it all comes down to how we regard Jesus:
Bono: If only we could be a bit more like Him, the world would be transformed. When I look at the Cross of Christ, what I see up there is all my s— and everybody else’s. So I ask myself a question a lot of people have asked: Who is this man? And was He who He said He was, or was He just a religious nut? And there it is, and that’s the question. And no one can talk you into it or out of it.