In 1995, I was a young, ambitious pastor serving a small village church in Northeastern Pennsylvania. One Sunday, I delivered a sermon on human illness and divine healing in which I shared these words:
When we become ill, it is important to listen to our bodies and pray that God help us make necessary changes. Our ailments may be blessings in disguise. We may be expecting too much from ourselves, or avoiding things we need to face. As we listen to our bodies, talk and reflect with others, and pray together, we can gain spiritual insight which will help us live healthier, more productive, more abundant lives.
The next day, I was in the seclusion room of Clarion psychiatric hospital. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Over the coming weeks, I was told I would never work as a pastor again, that my marriage would likely end, and that I would spend the rest of my life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. That was the prognosis for my illness. Some on my treatment team and in my faith community seemed to steer me toward such a "prophetic" outcome as if it were divine will.
I was advised by ministry supervisors to label my diagnosis a form of depression (not technically a lie) because manic-depression (as it was commonly called then) was often envisioned as a recipe for doing the "thorazine shuffle" for the rest of your life in bunny slippers, with permanent bed-head.
Yet, in spite of the fear of that stigma, God's grace was abundant. In the face of chronic mental illness, divine healing started to kick in—not through relief of my symptoms, but through the prayers, support, and encouragement of family and friends, particularly those within the church.
Having experienced God's delight with my community in the midst of my disorder, I can say with confidence that the church can be a place of healing for those with mental illness. It has been that for me. My story is not the story of many, however. Many with troubled minds feel abandoned, rejected, and shunned by the church.
After returning to work, I visited an elderly woman, a long-time member of the church who had suddenly stopped coming to worship. She greeted me at the door with a scowl. "I thought Christians weren't supposed to get depressed." "Well," I said, "There were certainly many godly people in the Bible who did."
I then opened my Bible, and read:
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
"Where is your God?" (Psalm 42:1-3)
She started tearing up. "I've been depressed all my life. I was taught it was wrong."
Moving toward healing
How do we as a faith community move forward so that folks with a serious mental illness (like me) move toward healing? One good first step, I believe, is confessional confrontation—simply sharing our stories within communities willing to listen. Not just in closed anonymous groups of like-minded victims, but in open fellowship where people with all sorts of brokenness eagerly seek healing in Christ.