Seeking Spaces for Openness about Mental Illness

It seems like there are a lot of people in my life right now who have Caring Bridge web pages. The Caring Bridge, in case you do not know people who need to use it, is a web platform that allows people with illnesses or difficult life events, and their families, to communicate with their support communities without having to contact each person individually. Most commonly, a family member posts updates: “Frank is having his 5th of 10 rounds of chemo today. So far it’s going as well as we can expect.” “Mary is back in the hospital.” This is a great example of the use of a specific social media form for support, and for pastoral care. Sometimes people put up their own updates; other times family members use the site to update their community of care about their loved one.

What I am also noticing, however, alongside confronting the reality of how many people I know right now who suffer cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, MS, or some other physical illness, is that I don’t ever receive Caring Bridge invitations from people or family members dealing with mental illnesses, nor do I set up such pages for the members of my own family who struggle with mental illness. Why is that? On the one hand, there are other venues that people use to share their stories of mental illness, including some online contexts. I am blessed to know a number of friends and professional colleagues who openly blog about their personal journeys with mental illness: see  Suddenly Bipolar or Unorthodox & Unhinged: Tales of a Manic Christian for two great examples. These are folks who courageously invite readers into their experiences, emotions, and thinking as they deal with the long- and short-term impact of mental illness on life and ministry. I routinely experience their writing as a gift, as it exposes me to situations, emotions, and realities I would not otherwise know about. On the other hand, it seems that such transparency about mental illness is still not the norm. The long-term, chronic character of much mental illness means that people tend not to create Caring Bridge pages to share the latest events, because there may not be much “news” per se, but rather just the day in, day out challenge of living with a mental illness. I suspect, however, that the major reason for the dearth of Caring Bridge pages for people with mental illness is the age-old problem of stigma and shame.

Just as there is a lack of parity between mental illness and physical illness in terms of insurance benefits and access to health care, there also exists a “lack of parity” in how freely and comfortably mental illness gets named and discussed in many of our lives in comparison to most physical illnesses. Part of what my friends who blog about their experiences remind me through their gracious writing is that mental illnesses are medical conditions in which the symptoms are behaviors–and that because church and society tend to treat behaviors in the category of moral issues, there is plenty of shame and blame attached to mental illnesses, to the people who suffer from them, and to the family members of those sufferers. Stigma and shame surrounding mental illness may make it difficult on a whole variety of levels to move to greater public transparency. For example I may be appropriately reluctant to share about a family member’s situation–even maintaining their anonymity– because of my assumption that it really is her or his story to tell and not mine, unless I have that person’s explicit permission to do so. Or I may decide that I can legitimately talk about my own experience of living with and loving a person with a mental illness, as my story–and yet I may fear the possible repercussions and sanctions that can come from being associated with persons with mental illness. How much more likely that I will be afraid of such negative effects, and silenced by that fear, if I am the person living with the condition of mental illness! Or, I may simply suffer from a lack of knowledge and vocabulary that make it difficult to know what or how to say anything about the experience of mental illness. No matter what the reason, the silence keeps us all stuck, isolated, separated, and unable to speak important truths about our lives because in reality none of us are exempt from coming close to mental illness one way or another.

In contrast to our silences, when Jesus confronted demons that made people’s lives painful and unlivable, he named them and engaged them openly and actively, putting boundaries around their power by refusing to look away. Jesus refused to act as if there were not a real person there, as if nothing could be done about their distress. I love and care about a whole bunch of people who suffer from various mental illnesses. And I long for a church and a society where it is as common and as comfortable to pray out loud in church for Uncle Joe who is currently struggling as he cycles through a manic phase of his illness as it is to do so for Aunt Jane who is currently sick with pneumonia. How does your community of faith address mental illnesses and the people who have them?

Faith Formation: Best Teaching Practices with Children and Youth?

Jesus-children“What’s the best curriculum for forming children and youth in Christian faith?” I am asked this question a lot. Here’s the short version of my response: We invite people into the way of life that embodies God’s love, justice, compassion, and reconciliation, by being, doing, and thinking about it together. The best curriculum for forming children, youth, and anyone else in Christian faith is guided participation in a community of practice where people are vibrantly, passionately risking themselves together in lives of faith in a world crying out for the love of Christ.

Guided participation in a community of practice puts a premium on both participation and practice. Watch children in play imitating the adults around them to see how even the youngest among us hunger to participate in the way of life they see enacted before them. That’s a good instinct to follow, because people–children or otherwise!–don’t become Christian by learning about what Christians do, say, or think (although at some point, particularly in adolescence and beyond, doing so can be an important part of deepening one’s faith identity). We become Christian, taking on the identity of one who is a disciple of Jesus, by acting the way Christians act, and by talking the way Christians talk. Over time through practice, even our hearts and minds are formed in this way of life.

How does this work? Let me offer an example from another life arena, music. I’m a fiddle player in an Irish band. I did not start life as a musician. It is an identity that has been shaped and formed through participation in practice. Years ago as a child, guided by those who were already musicians, I clumsily held my instrument and drew the bow across the strings in hopes of making a sound worth hearing. I learned the language that musicians use to make sense of what they do by hanging out with musicians. Over time, I “became” a musician. My hands, formed over the years by daily practice at whatever level of ability I had at the time, took on the shape and action of musician’s hands. My ears began to hear the music in the way that musicians hear, and I began to play as a fiddle player. Making music, especially Irish music, now resides in my mind and heart. It has been a journey, one that I am still on. But over the years of guided participation in practice within a community of experienced musicians, I have taken on this identity. In a similar way, participation with a community in practices of neighbor-love, worship, stewarding resources, takes central place in Christian formation, shaping a person’s hands and feet, heart and mind, to constitute a way recognizable as Christian. Children and youth need to be in a vibrant community where faith is practiced, and where they are invited into the practices, to take on the identity of being Christian.

As a “curriculum” of faith, guided participation in practice is not mere socialization through osmosis, as if just showing up were enough to form people in an identity. Showing up matters. But we already know that socialization alone leaves people doing lots of stuff without understanding why or what it means. Christian practices of celebrating the Lord’s Supper make little sense to an outside observer unfamiliar with the story in which they are embedded, a story in which Jesus renders all ordinary eating holy by telling his disciples “whenever you do this, do it in remembrance of me.” The story makes sense of the action; the action gives meaning to the story. Just as “showing up” alone is not enough, “thinking about faith” alone is insufficient for forming disciples.

Guided participation in practice isn’t just doing. It includes sharing an essential skill, that of fully and actively practicing our faith in our everyday lives and making theological meaning out of the stuff of everyday life. Sickness, birth, aging, celebrating new jobs, gay marriage, deciding how to spend money, wondering how to make sure everyone has enough clean water, celebrating birthdays, suffering (ours and that of other people), how and what we eat, institutional racism, how we dispose of our trash, dealing with failed marriages and celebrating life-giving ones, job layoffs, and all the rest that is part and parcel of our everyday lives in the world–we Christians need to cultivate the skill of making sense of these experiences through the lenses of our faith stories that can in turn inform our actions. For that, we need places and ways to learn and inhabit faith stories.

When people ask me about the best curriculum for forming the faith of children and youth, they may not like what they hear back from me. I “get” why my response is so unsatisfying. I’m not making it easy on committee chairs who need to buy materials for next year’s programs by endorsing a particular brand of curricular material. Don’t get me wrong: There’s an important place for choosing good material. But the best classroom experience cannot take root if it is not embedded in a community life in which all kinds of people join together to practice being agents of God’s love, justice, compassion, and reconciliation in the world that God made, redeems, and loves.

–A version of this blog appeared in the “Passing on the Faith” series,

Play and Theology

Children PlayingPlay is a serious theological subject! Recently I have been thinking about play and its relationship to Christian theology, helped by conversations with Jerome Berryman and practitioners of Godly Play at the recent gathering of the North American Godly Play association in Toronto. Theologians have been paying attention to play for a long time. Aquinas and Augustine wrote about it centuries ago. More recently, in the mid-20th century, Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Play created a short-lived stir by reframing play as a crucial aspect of our humanity, connecting play to human freedom. Moltmann suggested, contrary to those who view play as a way to pacify people and draw their attention away from the serious theological business of social transformation, that play (like art) is a way to construct “counter-environments” and “anti-environments” to the status quo that give people the freedom to imagine new futures. Fear and worry keep human beings stuck on the ground, Moltmann says, while freedom begins when people act without fear. Play draws people into freedom. Moltmann’s thinking helps me make sense of how the Christian understanding of resurrection works to free people, to empower us to live differently in the world: when the very meaning of death has been changed, so that one need no longer be afraid of it as ultimate terror, then Christians are set free and empowered to act in world in bold and courageous ways, risking even death.

All that might sound a long way from play, especially in its associations with children and Godly Play classrooms–but it’s not such a far stretch to get from God “playing with” and re-imagining the meanings of human life and death through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the teaching of a way of life to children and other faith-novices that proclaims our freedom to live creatively and courageously in a world that constantly stinks of death. Moltmann in the early 1970’s asked, “How is it possible to play and laugh when people die in Vietnam?” Decades later we might similarly ask, “How is it possible to play and laugh when young men like Trayvon Martin, and elementary school students in Newtown, CT, and so many other unnamed young people in this country, die everyday as a result of gun violence?”  With Moltmann, I argue that we turn to play not as a way of turning away from or covering over the harsh realities of violence and struggle in our society, but as a way of practicing the resurrection life that lets us imagine alternative futures to these stories.