Saturday, July 1, 2023

“Christian Faith and Mental Health” - July 2, 2023

Text: Psalm 88

One of our sermon suggestions for this summer was on the topic of Christian Faith and Mental Illness.  It would be hard to think of a more timely issue.  We have all heard that there is a mental health crisis in our country.  Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a health advisory in 2021 regarding youth mental health.  He noted that one in three high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009.  And this was before COVID.

It is not just an issue for young people.  The CDC reports that almost 20% of American of all ages have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives.  In a separate Gallup poll just released a month ago, 18% of adults said they were depressed.  This was 7 points higher than in 2015.  The Surgeon General has also talked about an “epidemic of loneliness” in our country.  

The statistics are daunting, but if you are the one experiencing mental health concerns, it is not about statistics.  It is personal.  I would guess it may be the case that everybody here this morning has been touched by mental illness – whether it is themselves or a family member or a close friend.  It’s true for my family.  

I had a friend in college named Lynnelle.  I was the lab assistant in her chemistry lab.  She was smart, she was popular, she was a leader in her sorority, she was a person of faith.  She seemed happy but hardly anyone knew what anguish she was going through.  And one night she took her own life.  I still think about Lynnelle from time to time, thinking about what great promise she had.

The statistics are stark, but it is the Lynnelles we know that bring this home for us.  Mental health is too important for us not to talk about it.

The question before us this morning is what role does our faith play when it comes to mental health?  If our faith affects all of life then surely it has something to say here.

There are a number of scriptures that came to mind.  For some kinds of mental illness, people in the ancient world had no way to describe it other than to say that they were possessed by an outside force.  King Solomon was said to be distressed by an evil spirit.  David was called in to play his harp and to soothe King Solomon’s mind until the spirit passed.  Essentially David was doing music therapy to alleviate symptoms of mental illness.  

And then we read about Jesus driving out demons from individuals who would then be restored to their right mind.  This was the way the ancient world understood serious mental illness.

But a good place to look as we consider mental health is the Psalms.  The Psalms speak to the whole range of human emotions.  I love that the Psalms don’t mess around – they tell it exactly the way it is.  They do not put on a happy face and act like everything is hunky dory.  So when there is soaring praise and joy, you know it is real, just as when the Psalmist’s heart is poured out to God, you know that is real too.

More than a third of the Psalms are Psalms of lament, crying out to God.  They are powerful expressions of pain and grief and regret.  They express frustration and anger - with others, with themselves, with God.  

The Psalms of Lament always end with hope – hope that God had had heard their cries, hope that God will answer, hope that God will step in on their behalf.  These Psalms all end with at least a glimpse of hope.  All of them but one.  All of them except Psalm 88.

This Psalm, our text for today, ends by saying “My only friend is darkness.”  That’s the take home message.  Wow.  

Where is the Good News?  Where is the hope?  Where is God?

You know, that is exactly what the Psalmist was asking.  And for a lot of people struggling with depression and anxiety, these are real questions.

Initially, a person might read this Psalm and ask, “Why is this even in the Bible?”  But I think a better response is, “Praise the Lord there is a Psalm like this in the Bible.”

Being a person of faith does not insulate us from the difficulties of life.  It does not mean that life will always be easy and fun and joyful.  

Struggles with mental illness are not because of a lack of faith.  This Psalm is written by a person of deep faith.  Throughout the Psalm, the cries of lament are addressed to God.  The Psalmist never stops crying out to God.  Rather than a lack of faith, this Psalm is a statement of profound faith.

Through the ages, some of the most faithful and dedicated people of faith have struggled with anxiety or depression or other kinds of mental illness.  Not to try and diagnose people who lived 2 or 3000 years ago, but David, Job, Elijah, Naomi, Jeremiah and others seem to suffer from depression.  And there are those faithful Christians down through the years who faced mental illness.  In more recent years people like C.S. Lewis and Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about their struggles with mental health.

Mental illness says nothing about the person’s faith or character; it just happens.  

Our mental health is shaped by a variety of factors, from our our brain chemistry to our relationships with family and friends.  The place we live, conditions in our neighborhood and school and workplace, and all kinds of social forces out there can affect our mental health.  Those who have served in war or other through some other traumatic experience, for example, can be deeply affected by it.

And for young people in particular, it is a different world from when I was in high school.  I mean it was tough enough then, but social media has brought about all kinds of messages about self-worth – that we are not popular enough or good-looking enough or smart enough or rich enough.  Online bullying and the pressure to measure up and to fit in can feel like a 24/7 thing.  Add to this very real concerns that all people and maybe especially young people may have about things like climate change and gun violence and inequality and injustice, and it can be a tough world.

Being a Christian does not insulate us from that.  And if our faith leads us to care more about the world out there with all of its problems and concerns, being a Christian might make things even more difficult.

You may hear some Christians say things like, if you just pray more or have more faith or just be positive and optimistic, you will get over this.  Or if you were really a good Christian, you wouldn’t be like this.

Friends, that is not helpful.

The first thing we need to know is that this affects all of us.  If there is a scale of mental health and a 100 means you are in 100% perfect health, none of us is a 100 and all of us are fluctuating somewhere on that scale.  At times, we have all felt anxious, we have all felt down, we have all felt the weight of worry, we have all been affected by adverse events in life.  Some may be especially struggling, but we are all in this life together.  

Mental illness is just that – it’s an illness.  We wouldn’t tell somebody with the flu, or a broken arm, or cancer, to just get over it, or look at them as though their faith is lacking.

We wouldn’t tell a faithful Christian that they shouldn’t have asthma or shingles or an ear infection any more than we should tell a faithful person that they shouldn’t be depressed or have an eating disorder or suffer from an addiction.

So let’s be very clear: mental illness is not a faith issue.  It is a medical issue.  And just as we seek the help of professionals when we have concerns about our physical health, I am grateful for professionals who serve in the field of mental health, including counselors and therapists and psychologists in our church like Joyce Davidson and Dawn Doerr-Johnson and Fred Borgen whose work is so important and a real ministry.  

Just as there are medications that we use to treat other illnesses, I am thankful that there are medications that can treat mental illness and for researchers who develop those treatments and psychiatrists who prescribe and oversee these treatments.  

And just as we act with care and compassion toward those with physical illnesses and ailments, we are called to act with care and compassion for those facing mental illnesses – which could be any of us and based strictly on statistics is certainly a good number of us.

Our Psalm is written by someone well acquainted with depression.  The feelings are spot on.  The writer is in a bleak place.  The Psalm ends, “My only friend is darkness.”  It doesn’t get a lot bleaker than that.  But the thing is, depression can keep us from seeing clearly – telling us that we have no friends, that no one cares about us, that we are not worth caring about.  That is not true.  

As a community of faith, we are called to be there for one another, to support one another, to remind each other of God’s love and presence and indeed to be God’s love and presence for one another.  Rather than telling somebody to cheer up, we need to listen and acknowledge their pain.

And we need to work to erase the stigma that can be associated with mental illness.  When we somehow send the message that Christians should not have struggles, or this is something we shouldn’t talk about, we can add guilt onto folks who are already having a tough time.  

The Psalms certainly did not hesitate to speak about all kinds of struggles.  And a part of erasing that stigma surrounding mental illness is for all of us to be a little more real.  We don’t have to put on a fake smile and sunny disposition when we come to worship and act like we are 100% OK.  And we shouldn’t expect others to.

When we are a little more open about sharing our pain and our vulnerability and our struggles, it encourages others to be more open.  And we might find that instead of a community where everybody acts like they have everything together but doesn’t really share with a lot of depth, the church can be a community where everybody is accepted just as they are, and we are able to build deeper bonds of community, and we really are fellow travelers helping one another on the way.

I do not offer any of this as a mental health expert – there are folks in our church and in our community who are far more qualified.  But I offer this as a way of saying that when we face struggles, we are not alone.  And we can always share our pain, our frustration, our anger, our anxiety with God.  The Psalms certainly do that.

I read a story last week about Grandma Joy.  At age 93, Joy Ryan became the oldest woman to visit every national park when she and her 42 year old grandson Brad visited the National Park of American Samoa, 6700 miles from her home in Ohio.  For Joy and her grandson, it was the last of the 63 national parks for them to visit.

Several years ago, Ryan was in veterinary school and found himself in a dark place.  “It’s so hyper-competitive,” he said.  “I had boards and then this young man committed suicide.  I knew where he had been and it scared me how close I had come to that.”

Since his parents’ divorce a number of years before, Ryan had had limited contact with his grandmother.  But somehow in the midst of that dark time in vet school, he mustered up the courage to call her.  He asked Grandma Joy if she wanted to go camping in the Smoky Mountains with him.  

She was 85 and she had never slept in a tent.  In fact, she had never seen a mountain before.  But she said, “Why not!”  She would give it a try.  She struggled as they hiked up a mountain peak in the park, Ryan helping her.  When they made it to the top, she said there were some college kids at the summit who were cheering for her and celebrating.  And she was hooked.

So over the next several years they ticked off national parks one by one.  As they visited the various parks, Joy became stronger and Ryan seemed to be healing in his own way.  When they  hiked amongst the redwoods in Redwood National Park in California, Joy says those towering trees made her feel about two inches tall.  It was when she looked up that she noticed something.

“They’ve been struck by lightning,” she recalled.  “And you think: that takes courage, after you’ve been struck by lightning to say, 'I’m gonna keep on growing.'”

Mental illness can be like getting struck by lightning.  It takes courage to keep going.  It takes courage to keep growing.  And it takes courage to seek help.  

In the midst of our struggles, darkness is not our only friend.  God is there.  We are called to be there for one another.  And there is hope.  Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment