When people think of faith and healing, oftentimes images come to mind of charismatic televangelists summoning healing for people on a large stage. Maybe you think of Jesus encountering the man called Legion in the hills and summoning the unsettling spirits out of him, driving them into swine. No matter what image comes to mind for you, healing is often less dramatic and less immediate than we might be led to believe.
For most of us, healing is slower. For most of us healing is a long and winding path, non-linear in nature.
It’s a path that leads us to an understanding of sick and well, unhealed and healed not as a binary, but as words that describe our nuanced existence in mind, body, and spirit.
Along that path we may ask “Where is Jesus in the midst of this?” or “Where is God in all this today?” And, this is where the role of the church comes in, as Jesus’ community of followers in the world today. In mostly less dramatic ways than the images of the televangelist or Jesus with the man called Legion, but in equally important ways, the church is the body that shows up for people with mental illness.
I would like to offer that the role of the church in the lives of those living with mental illness rests on three main principles: accompaniment, affirmation, and love.
Accompaniment: The role of the church in an individual’s healing process is to accompany people through with mental illness, reminding them who they are (beloved), and affirming them in community. Jesus didn’t just invite people in to be on the edge or peripheral of community. Jesus invited the marginalized and disenfranchised right into the center of community, to a seat at the table.
Affirmation: The role of the church is to affirm someone’s whole self and to honor that whole self. Not that true affirmation does not deny the reality of someone’s lived experience with mental illness. And, the church can’t just show up once for those living with mental illness. People who are living with mental illness need to encounter the healing love, grace, and waters of the church again and again on their journey. Healing looks like the church never giving up on someone even if they are ill more days than they are well or if their wellness requires special compassion or accommodations from others.
Love: The role of the church in the healing process is not to “save” people in the way that Jesus did in driving out the demons. Rather, the role of the church is to love people with mental illness well and fully as equal parts of the body of Christ. There is no need for a “savior complex”. Rather, there is a need for radical love and appreciation for the whole of who a person is and how they are uniquely made in God’s image. And, in loving well, we may, as a result, save lives.
Healing looks like an individual with mental illness, supported by many resources and supports, including the church, drawing on their own inner wisdom in order to seek wholeness. Most people with mental illness are active participants in managing their wellness and wholeness. To think that they are less than that is to diminish their dignity.
For most people living with mental illness, healing doesn’t look like an encounter with a televangelist or Jesus driving demons into swine. Healing looks more like self-care, community care, medications, therapy, saying no, making it to appointments, sleeping well, engaging in community, leaning out, prayer, support groups, grounding exercises, celebrating every victory, and radical acceptance. And, it’s a journey not just for a day, but often for a lifetime.
Rev. Dr. Ciarán Osborn (he/him)
Rev. Dr. Ciarán Osborn is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, serving in the Boston metro area. He has served as Pastor of several UCC churches in the Boston area as well as in clinical Chaplain positions. Throughout his ministry, Rev. Ciarán has officiated weddings, baptisms, and memorial services in the wider community.
Rev. Ciarán also lives with chronic mental health conditions. He writes, teaches, and preaches regularly on the topics of mental health, mental illness, and faith. Rev. Ciarán writes for the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network. Ciarán is a board game nerd and hiking and Krav Maga enthusiast. His family lives in the Boston area and they share their life with numerous dogs and chickens.