The Lord Has Done Great Things for Us, and We Are Glad Indeed: Loving and Serving Others Through Times of Mental Illness
Just before Christmas in 2014, I feared for my life at my own hands. I was somehow granted the mindfulness in that moment to check myself into a psychiatric hospital. One afternoon, my pastor came to visit me unexpectedly. I was mortified, for not only was my pastor my pastor, he was my boss. (A year and a half earlier, I joined his staff as the church’s Director of Music Ministries). We sat across from each other in a small room. He looked me in the eye and gently asked, “Hillary, what happened?” He listened intently as I choked through the events of the last few days. He sat quietly—never speaking, never interrupting. Before he left, he prayed with me.
I do not remember what we talked about that afternoon, but I still remember how my pastor made me feel when I returned to work. He treated me with the same respect and professionalism as he had prior to my hospitalization. Despite my fears of judgment and rejection, my pastor still regarded me as a valued member of the church staff, even after seeing me during what was perhaps the darkest moment of my life. After four days, I was released from the hospital on a Saturday afternoon. Early Sunday morning, I received this email from my pastor:
“Hillary, as you continue to recover, the Psalm for today seemed very timely:
1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.
2Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.
Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
3The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are glad indeed. Ps. 126:1-3 (NRSV)
Glad to know you are feeling better and though you will be missed this morning, you will
be with us through your psalm tune and the preparations you have done with the musicians.”
Not only had he come to see me in the hospital earlier that week, my pastor saw me in the liturgy that morning. I felt remembered and validated; like my pain meant something to someone else. As I continued to recover that morning at home, I found comfort in knowing that my church was standing with me even though I could not be with them.
Several weeks after my hospitalization, I continued to untangle the complex emotions that one encounters after such an experience. I was stuck in destructive cycles of embarrassment, shame, and anxiety. But it was my depression that fed me the biggest lie of all: “Even God is disappointed in you,” it said. And why wouldn’t God be disappointed in me? After all, I had come incredibly close to ending the life that was given to me as a gift of grace.
In the difficult years that followed, I came to understand that the woman who wanted to die that December afternoon in 2014 was not a terrible person. She was suffering, convinced that she no longer deserved a place in the world or in the heart of God. And though that woman is a part of my past and therefore, a part of me, she is not all of me and does not define my entire personhood. Regardless of our pasts, we are beloved children of a merciful, compassionate God. I am thankful that the church played a significant role in helping me remember that. The church loved me when I deemed myself unlovable. The church reminded me that my life is not identified by my illness, thereby liberating me to process my experiences in a safe place free of judgment. The church did not turn away when I revealed the parts of myself that were scarred by depression and anxiety. And then, one day, in all her wisdom, the church said to me: now go forth and do for others what has been done for you.
The church gave me the opportunity to love and serve my community as my community had loved and served me. My congregation shares its building with a professional counseling center. Established in 1974 by a former pastor, it remains a source of help, hope, and healing for individuals and families in the area. Six years ago, as the counseling center was approaching its 40th anniversary, my pastor asked me to consider how our congregation might help the center celebrate this milestone. At the time, I was still rather new to the Lutheran church, but I was already confident about one thing: Lutherans love to sing! Therefore, I suggested that we collaborate with the staff of the counseling center to create what we decided to call our Hymn Festival of Healing and Hope.
The Hymn Festival of Healing and Hope became an annual event for our congregation and community alike. It is an evening of congregational song, prayers, testimonies, anointing, and musical performances by local ensembles. While the experience of the hymn festival symbolizes something different to each person, I hope that what rings true above all else is this: the church has immense potential be a place of compassion, solidarity, and healing for people living with mental health challenges—a place where people can ask the difficult questions, share their brokenness with others without fear of stigma, and find dignity in their stories that have been fractured by the realities of living with mental illness. (Unfortunately, this year’s hymn festival was postponed due to COVID-19, but we were determined to find another way to celebrate 2020 National Mental Health Awareness Week. To out more, visit: https://www.ctkluth.com/mhaw2020.html).
Although my church reacted to my suffering in ways that embodied the love and grace of God, I realize that not everyone’s experience of mental illness within the church has been as comforting or life-giving. We cannot change the complicated history the church shares with mental illness, nor can we completely eradicate harmful theologies of mental illness that keep people with mental health problems excluded from full inclusion in the Body of Christ. We can, however, begin to make small changes from wherever we are so that the church might become a place of belonging for all people. We can work to educate ourselves and our congregations about mental health disorders. We can work to wipe out stigma by addressing topics of mental health in our preaching, teaching, and music-making. We can befriend people with mental health challenges; we can listen to their stories, honor their experiences, and remind them of their place at God’s holy table. These kinds of theological tasks are not easy, nor do they happen quickly. But together, if we lean into God’s grace, we can learn to stand in solidarity with people who live with mental health challenges in ways that reflect the great things God has done for us. And for that, we are glad indeed.