Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Faith & Mental Health (or Mental Illness) - parts 1, 2 and 3

Faith & Mental Illness (or Mental Health)

  A few months ago we kept getting questions, and hearing many personal concerns, around the area of mental health and Christianity. Between now and Easter, we will try to understand how faith matters for the struggles we face - or even provide strength of soul for all of us.

   Mental illness is intriguing; words like bipolar, depression, and personality disorder give us pause, or drive us to our knees. Then there are the inner battles we usually don't share in public: anxiety, shame, darkness, insomnia, fractured relationships, drinking, addictions - our whole emotional life. Maybe we think everything's great - but something's missing.

   Does religion help? or make things worse? Shouldn't we be able to pray, and Jesus will just make it all better? We will examine ways religion is actually a problem - like the idea that God is punishing me, or I'm not praying hard enough, or God is only in places where there is sweetness and light. We will see how weakness and vulnerability are not problems to be conquered, but the very openings for God's best work in us. God did tell Paul, "My power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:7). We will ask What kind of church is God calling us to be in light of people's real struggles?

Epiphany: the Iceberg
 Usually I think of the word "Epiphany" in terms of looking up - to a star, a light in God's immense sky; or perhaps we think of the dawn, the bright sun peering over the horizon, or a light bulb going off in your head.

   But perhaps for there to be a real epiphany, a real revelation and discovery in our lives, we need to look down, deep, beneath the surface - like the iceberg, the bulk of the thing hidden, dangerous, very real even if unnoticed. Much of our life is lived on the surface - and sadly our religious life often is limited to some nice, observable acts: I go to church, say a quick prayer, volunteer once in a while, occasionally read my Bible.

But it's only the tip of the iceberg; the bulk of my life remains untouched, submerged - and I may not even be familiar with the depth of my own life! But it's down there. God is keenly interested in that submerged, unaddressed life. "Lord, you have searched me and known me" (Psalm 139:1).

   Our goals in this series (and in life!)? To grow in emotional health, real compassion for others, to break free from destructive patterns, and be filled with grace; we can embrace weakness, accept the surprising gift of our limitations, learn to resolve conflicts, and forgive.

   Our methods will be to take time to go deep, probably with others - and to utilize classic spiritual disciplines most Christians have forgotten or never heard of. Saints and other faithful followers of Jesus through history have practiced simple things like breathing, meditation, silence - slowing down, being anchored in God's love, abandoning delusions and society's alluring but harmful messages, serving humbly. When we learn these simple habits, our life with God becomes deeper, wider, fulfilling - and we begin to feel the ebbing away of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and fear.

   We never perfect this quest; we live in a fallen world, and our very inability to get it all right opens us up to the mercy of God, and the joy of the journey. We will learn how feelings of emptiness, or the wounds we carry, are God calling us home. Imperfection is a great gift; vulnerability is the way to life. This is the Epiphany we pray for.
Emotionally Un-Healthy Spirituality

During my lifetime, we the people have become far more attuned to healthy eating. We care about how the food was processed, how it's prepared, and the impact on our bodies, now and over a lifetime.   So how odd then that when it comes to our spiritual life, we gobble up spiritualities that are maybe quick, readily available, easy and even cheap! There is a lot of Un-Healthy Spirituality out there - and we've all tried it, but it's only made us flabby, lethargic, and prone to catastrophe.

   Here are just a few of the popular but really unhealthy ideas about faith that will ruin you. Quickie piety: say a prayer, or even many prayers, and God will just magically make everything great. Guilt-driven: I done wrong, God's raging mad, I should do better. Sunshiney-faith: since I believe in God, I'm all smiles, always. Denial of Darkness: since God is the antithesis of anything negative, I ignore my own anger, fear, sadness and pretend God will fix things. Superhero belief: I have no limits, and can do even more than my already jammed full life since God is with me. Choiceless religion: I don't have to say No to anything to say Yes to God. Occasional religion: if I go to church now and then and slap a few prayers onto meals, I'll be close to God. The Evil God: horrible things happen, so the controlling God made bad things happen. Judgmental God: God must be as annoyed at people I don't like as I am. Laid-back God: God can't be bothered with my inner life or my daily habits. God the Butler: God exists to do me little favors. Tyrant God: I should be very afraid of God.

All these are false gods. And all of these jam spiritual cholesterol into your arteries. You need a new diet, maybe even some surgery. You need an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. We begin by saying No to fast-food, junk religiosity, and begin to know and even be with a good God. And we take the time to dig deeply - into God, into my self, and into others. Real change most often happens in the company of other people. You may feel hesitant, or think you're too busy - but aren't you hungry for lasting change, and even joy?