He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God
A woman who just moved to the greater Boston area sought a new faith community to call home. On the recommendation of a friend, she decided to check out a thriving area church one Sunday morning. Alas, she chose not to return. Oh, make no mistake, the church was lovely and welcoming. The windows were resplendent, the light was prophetic, and the well-practiced choir sang on key. However, she left the church service feeling uneasy. She acknowledged how well everything was done, how orderly, how well-spoken the leaders. Upon further reflection, she explained, that for her, “it was too perfect.” I understood what she meant. When we feel broken inside, or when we have traveled the dark paths of emotional pain, sometimes church simply feels, well….not so great. By all means, we need these thriving communities of faith! And her experience was a subjective one. But, maybe, just maybe, there is something we should pay attention to here. How does mental illness, trauma, abuse and psychological suffering fit in at church? How do we address the struggles of depression, increasing suicide rates, and traumatic life happenings in our communities of faith?
In my university town, where I live and attended graduate school, achievement culture is real and often debilitating. I loved my time at Divinity School, but I will say that one’s ego is stoked and poked. Sometimes with an inspirational flame, and other times it feels more like a gas-lighting. A fellow student commented to me once, “I feel like if I am not saving the world like other students, then I am failing.” God have mercy! I counsel college and graduate students who find themselves depleted by the constant pressure of comparison, performance, and fear of failure. I remind these students that sometimes success is just paying a bill or holding an elderly person’s hand, or staying out of jail. I remind them that elite academic institutions do not get to define them. Perfectionism constricts our reality to small dark corners. The voices say, “if we are not achieving, we are not worthwhile.” Depression begins to close in as we find ourselves not making the grade. We feel inadequate, and in the worst moments hate ourselves for not being talented, or good enough. The inner pain becomes unbearable as we conclude we must be defective, unworthy of love. Even God may feel distant and unattainable. And, we believe these inner voices. Frighteningly, they become our sole/soul truth. Trust me, I’ve been there, as have way too many others.
For those who suffer psychologically, really for all of us, church, faith and God can get all mixed up. Someone might wonder (like the woman who was church shopping), “Am I accepted by this congregation? Does God exist for me here.” The poet Anne Sexton writes, “Put your ear down close to your soul, and listen deeply.” It is a message of wisdom for all of us, and for Church. We are so much more than our status updates. Find your soul, your core essence, your beloved-ness, your deep connection to God. It can be a noisy world full of diminishing messages. Paradoxically, in transcending ego, we find new life, we find God. And what does God require of us? But to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly – that is for sure.
Jennifer Stuart is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She serves as a community minister at First Church in Cambridge, MA, UCC. Jennifer, a clinical social worker specializing in psychological trauma, is a psychotherapist at the Danielsen Institute at Boston University.