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church, mental illness, understanding and grace

You lock the door; wish for deadlocks.
You wish for the satisfying clunk of knowing the world has been turned out.

You stand at the window. Night steps from behind the gnarled trees on the far side of the road, watching you. The moon brandishes its white grin, admiring its reflection on the black, gleaming mailbox.

Your phone chirps. You turn it off, not looking at the message.

This is who you’ve become lately.
Weary. Isolated. Paranoid.

Just a man padding around his house on wooden floors that creak in the silence.

You sit on the edge of the mattress, check the locks on the window one more time, slip an Ativan under your tongue and wait for sleep to overtake you.

The demon’s slow whisper becomes the wind outside, and the wind becomes a breeze, and the breeze becomes your breath, in and out, in and out, and you’re riding this Serotonin hit into the depths of night.

This is the first thing I notice, always, when my mind starts to get sick.


My body instinctually shuts down, shuts out the world, and it’s a terrible thing because in shutting out the world, I shut out the beauty right as I’m shutting the pain. Like cancer, mental illness attacks my life cells, the ones that make a person smile and hug and laugh. And I kill them off, one by one, watching the way they shrivel, this dance of death and life just withering away.

But tonight, although I may not smile, I am safe.

It’s hard for the church to separate spirituality and mental health. Instinctually, we assume these two points correlate on a graph somewhere next to our names in the Book of Life. Like maybe God, in his spare time, has developed an algorithm to chart the dedication one has to His plan. Thus, if someone becomes depressed, surely their enthusiasm for God’s plan must be waining. If someone struggles with anxiety, surely their trust in God isn’t intact. If someone struggles with guilt, assumedly they don’t believe in the repentant plan of Salvation.

And the someone steps up and points out that cortisol, dopamine, serotonin and brain mapping can be used to diagnose these things and the algorithms are briefly consulted, and we assume God puts an asterisk on the bottom of the chart which reads: Tread gently. Love carefully. Question everything. Not all is as it may seem.

But what I think God means is this: The ground is always level at the foot of the cross. Grace abounds there for everyone who might reach for it. Love first. Understand maybe. Do your best. It’s okay. I’ve got the rest.

Then you find this friend. Maybe two.

You find this person who wears Jesus on their sleeve, and when you show up at their door, they pull you in and find a Kleenex box because they know by the look on your face that you’re about to destroy their living room with your grief. But none of that stops them. They give you a steaming mug of coffee and you cru into it and tell them how you wish you could be healed, and you beat back the paranoia and try on this new cloak called Trust because these people have only and ever shown you love. Love without judgment. Love without, even sometimes, answers. Just the kind of love that listens. And you weep together and not once do they tell you that Jesus is lacking in your life or tell you that you’re doing it wrong but they just keep pointing to Him and it’s all you can do from just pulling a throw blanket over yourself and falling asleep on their couch because this, right here, is a safe place.

And the next day, you can’t text anyone, and you turn off your phone again, and it makes you sad because you remember how it felt to be heard. You remember how it felt to be loved and it makes you ache somewhere between your soul and your head.

The following day, you send a text message and thank them for being there for you, and it feels good to have a friend like that.

But you don’t stop there. You hug a coworker you know is hurting, and your world is a little bit better.

church, mental illness, and grace photo 1 church, mental illness, and grace photo 2

You’re out snowshoeing with your dog, and you’re staring up at the sky when you trip landing on your knees, and it’s then that you pray: Help me, Lord, you pray. “Help me to trust others a little more. Help me to love others as You’ve loved me. Help me to listen to the hurting world first, to never be critical because a critical spirit will never help a critical situation. Help me to… you pause… well, help me to always and forever look in your direction. Because the road to the cross isn’t a highway but instead, a narrow footpath of faith. Help me to remember, each night, to lock up the world away from me but never before inviting you in first.” You get distracted then because your dog has found a possum that’s still, curled up in the path with its tiny hands resting on its chin and you wonder if it’s really dead. And since you’ve lost your train of thought, you murmur, “And God? I don’t ask for a miraculous healing, but I do ask you continue to show me sure steps toward living a better life of service to you. And since we;re on our knees anyway, Lord, could you heal Ervin’s back hip and make it easier to lose this belly fat and thank you, dear Lord, for making dark chocolate and cheese.”

And you laugh. And it’s the most honest laugh you’ve heard in a longtime, and the sun is setting, dripping all this contentment over the western sky and you suddenly think that it might be the last sunset you’ll so you just take it in… And the beauty is so raw and real that your breath catches in your chest and you wonder if this is the last breath you’ll take, so you just breathe it in…

And you are grateful. Grateful for trust. Grateful for friends. Grateful for the church of people and couches and shoulders to cry on and all this messy grace that blankets your life. You’re grateful for healing, even in minuscule amounts and you’re grateful for second and third and fifty-seventh chances in spite of yourself.

Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.

Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.

They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.

Jonah 2:1-90, KJV



how I wandered into the woods and found grace

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.”

2 Corinthians 12:8

My brother and I are on an overnight hike along the Superior Trail. We laced up our boots and told ourselves that morning we would go until we couldn’t go anymore because neither of us knew what we didn’t know.

how I wandered into the woods and found grace photo


We had whittled away at our packs, the night before, sawing the ends off our toothbrushes like the experts said, leaving behind the bulk of our clothes, determined to not carry any unnecessary weight. I had laid out the contents of my pack and sitting there, right on the top, next to the cookstove and ground coffee, were my journal, guidebook and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

My books were going. Words can lighten someone’s load or crush someone beneath them, and it’s up to us to determine which of these it’ll be.

So we set off. Past boulders and sometimes over them, their gray masses like checkpoints along the way. Past pine trees looming. Past tumbling, gurgling, and roaring rivers. Over snakes, shy under foot. We walked until blisters started to form on our feet and our minds were numb from exhaustion, and then we fell, into our tent, eating protein boosted Mac N’ Cheese, and I read these words:

“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a puzzled whimper.”

T.S. Elliot

I turned my head away, turned off my lamp, and let the tears fall, slick against the sheen of the sleeping bag because this is how I felt: my world was ending and I was standing confused on the brink of ruin, knowing only that I knew nothing about how to stop it.

I had wandered into these woods, broken, confused, belittled by the darkness of this world and all its angst. I had wandered, trying to shed the weight of who I was and who I wasn’t… the bulk of yesterday’s guilt and misunderstandings, the many failures. The endless, anxious murmurings.

The debilitating depression. I had stumbled time and again under the weight of my anger at a God who allowed that to happen to me. Why me had become my daily mantra, this bitter replica manna I ate from in desperate attempts to believe I didn’t deserve hardship and surely I was owed something good to outweigh the bad.

“Be careful,” my brother said as I walked casually out over the gorge, onto the boulder, hundreds and hundreds of feet to fall with one missed step.

how I wonadered into the woods and found grace photo

I didn’t care if I fell. Something was freeing in the spreading of my arms and lifting them high, tempting myself to cannonball off the edge, to feel the air hurtling past me as I fell into the freezing waters below because I wanted to feel the end, to catch it within my hand and squeeze it tight, to learn every sharp pain of bitterness in acknowledgment that here I was, a human, completely and utterly undone and alone.

One shaky step.

Then two.
Closer to the edge.
Daring. Tempting.

A startling, cold breeze.

A knee buckling.
And yet.
Determination to live.

To keep breathing.
Sitting down on the edge of the boulder, I gave up.
Shoulders shaking.

Sometimes it’s only in the breaking of one’s will that we collapse against this earth. And it’s here, in the moment of surrender to a God who cares… I find it: less of me and more of You, Lord, I pray. Please give me hope for tomorrow, for courage to go on despite adversity, for Your redeeming blood to drench my life and cause a tiny bit of growth, this seed of faith unfurling.

Giving up sometimes looks like giving in, and God sat down next to me, then, on that large slab of stone, and I felt His presence in the wind, in every tree swaying, in every comforting beam of sunshine.

Grace, I’ve learned, is the conclusion to every battle between our broken humanity and God’s love.

And grace always, always wins.

Still shaking, I crawled on hands and knees back to safety.
I slung my pack onto shoulders sore.

It seemed lighter somehow like I might be able to actually carry on.

But he said to me,
“My grace is sufficient for you,
For my power is made perfect in weakness.”

—2 Corinthians 12:9

What I’m Reading This Week

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel by Jesmyn Ward


how we can hope for a better tomorrow

We’ve packed up our little life and moved.

Packed up the china, the folding chairs, the plaques; stuffed a thousand memories into a jar and pretended it didn’t bother us that they were held captive there, their lights slow and steady at first, then quietly dimming, their wings beating desperate like butterfly kisses against the glass.

We pretended the sadness didn’t pervade then, when we flipped off the lamps, shut the curtains, turned the thermostat to “off” that warmed our tiny house.

We pretended until one day, upon waking in our new house, we looked at all we had been given and murmured, “This is home.” Because a home is more than the sum of memories but is also where hope burns passionately for the future.

how we can hope for a better tomorrow photo

I have found this about hope. It is something I come to now, today, without shame because in the past, I had always believed a person like me didn’t deserve goodness, didn’t deserve mercy, didn’t deserve all the blessings God somehow kept giving.

I still don’t believe I deserve anything. But I am learning to be hopeful of everything. Because through this God I serve, everything is possible… everything is hope-filled. (Matthew 19:26)

He is, ultimately, in the business of restoration. Of redemption. Of hope. And He is completely and utterly delighted in me. And you. (Psalms 18:19) He is enamored in the restoration of all the thousand mistakes, of all the broken pieces you see looking back at you in the puddle of your despair.

Life has met this rhythm for me, once chaotic with highs and lows, now the steady hum of one lost in a trance and I keep waiting for the shoe to drop, per se, for this hope to collide hard against the floor of my optimistic soul.

But it hasn’t happened.
And I keep waiting.

I find this anticipation every morning upon waking as if it were lying next to me, its sour breath upon my pillow, willing me to accept the reality that today, definitely, will be the day when all goes bad.

The dog growls grumpily, begging me to open the door.
The poof of his tail, flouncing, nails clacking across the floor.
The sunshine spilling through the door, warm upon bare toes.
Coffee sputters, the fireplace dances.
Life, in all its wonder, continues to be a joy.

This life, I’ve learned, is under no obligation to give us what we deserve because there are no limitations to God’s love.

I sit here this morning and I find it: hope. And I open my heart to trusting that tomorrow and the next day, this promise of love will settle comfortable where fear once resided in my heart.

“Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, ‘Wait and Hope.”

Alexandre Dumas


how you can live free in this raging world

When I roll back the curtains covering this one little slice of earth, I see her, the fog, how she came in the night, how she crept beneath bushes and over barbed wire fences making her way to our house. She is tranquility exposed, peace visible and I want to stand there, sipping my coffee and watch her, the way she waltzes with such grace, so effortlessly in and amongst and around.

How you can live free in this raging world photo

I reach out my hand, rest it against the cold glass, these fingers smudging, pressing, reaching for so much peace, and I wonder if maybe God Himself isn’t tired too? If perhaps He doesn’t wish to spend a little more time in the snow-crusted fields of Northern Iowa this morning instead of on the raging streets of Washington D.C.

Maybe you’ve been reading the news, too. Perhaps you heard about the marches, the fight against misogyny and bigotry, the flags being lit up, this tiny spark of rage becoming this uncontrolled wildfire. Maybe you’ve also read about the foreign affairs, how relationships are changing, and nuclear warfare, and its all just one tricky line to walk because no matter how much you trust, no matter how much you guard against fear, it slips unnoticed sometimes into your heart.

I turn from the window, sit next to the dog snoring softly, head on the pillow, and I pull the Book toward me, this life-raft in this raging world.

Maybe it’s the coffee, lackluster in its bravado. Maybe it’s the snores of Ervin. Maybe it’s the fog floating across the river, but the Book slips, falls with my eyelids.

A scream. A yell of triumph. Pain. Maybe fear. I cannot tell.
A battle cry, this time, I’m sure.

I search madly, run down the streets, and turn to see the masses walking along this street. It’s paved with the gold and glimmer of broken souls, these souls once meant to be free but now shackled, splintered – all this shimmering brokenness being trodden on by boots, marching, polished, a rivalry of soldiers yelling, “Hail, Trump. Hail to the Führer.”

And the church doors swing open. Loud, they bang like a cannon fired. The people spill into the street, fists raised and signs high for human rights. Their voices get louder. Their leader is a lady yelling about her God-given rights, and it’s the only time God is ever mentioned, there at the top of their screaming, teeming madness.

And then I see her, this veil of white rolling in and I think maybe it’s tear gas, desperate attempts to control the riot, but then I watch as she tumbles in and around and among the people, how she cloaks them in peacefulness, waltzing this way, waltzing that way. And she wears a coat of many colors, of every race and gender and personality, how she is one being, but so many of everything put together in this beautiful, messy existence of perfection. She tosses her hair, then, laughs, places her hand against her heart, and I see it then, this trail of blood-red she drips wherever she walks.

And the people are confused, the church-goers and the liberals, the politicians and the self-righteous and one small child breaks free from the jostling throng, falls, touching his lips to the trail of blood and then, he too stands and starts to dance.

Only a few follow the boy.
Only a few shimmer in white.
Only a few dance free.

Only a few, there in the middle of that street paved with gold.

I wake slow, unsure of reality, my heart thrumming wild against my ribs. The fog has left for the day. She has slipped silently toward the horizon while I slept. My coffee is now cold. The Bible has fallen.

I sit up.
I shake my head, dizzy.

Oh, how I wish to dance free.

“For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

2 Corinthians 3:17 NLT

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

Matthew 5:9 KJV

Photo courtesy of Licensed under CC0.

What I’m Reading This Week

To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey


How the church can be a safe place again

He struggles across the horizon, against the wind whipping and snow blowing, against all the bitterness of the world and I wonder how I too, can spring with such resilient joy in the face of such adversity.

I trudge on, calling his name, this dog of mine, but the words are lost in the lonely howl of winter’s play.

The trees are thicker now.  The chaotic tumble of branches reach down upon the narrow trail I’m following and then there’s a fallen log across my path, so I kick my snowshoes off, climb over, sit, catching my breath, this plume of white exhaled, inhaled, exhaled.

Safe - Snowy Treescape

How do you keep breathing when the weight of the darkness presses hard against your chest?

I replay the scene from the dinner table, mashed potatoes piled high, the smooth carve of knife meeting ham, the bread, broken together, this holy communion of friends meeting after church. And how the conversation soared, took on a flight of its own until someone said, laughing, “Guess who I met the other day?”

And we all know her, the lady with four jackets, multi-colored, scrawny, like she doesn’t get enough to eat and how she carries on talking to herself, one second an FBI agent, the next an airline pilot.

“She’s absolutely crazy,” someone says and the laughter tumbles onto the table, this ugly hate and someone carries on about how “cuckoo” she is and then someone asks serious, “Don’t you think she just needs a good laying on of hands? Someone to pray over her? To cast the demons out?”

I cannot breathe, the weight of all the ugly misunderstood weighing down and my face flushes hot in embarrassment as I recall standing in line at Walgreens, waiting for pill bottles filled to stop the voices inside my head. I want to announce it, loud, “She’s schizophrenic, maybe bipolar. We don’t know what she’s lived through to be who she is today. It’s a chemical imbalance, not a demonic presence.” I want to say it, but I don’t because Southern Gal squeezes my hand, then, under the table and sometimes that’s all it takes: just one person knowing what you’re going through and you have the strength to stay silent or speak up or do all kinds of brave things.

Because when, when… oh when, did the church become this? When did the church, this one place that should be the safest refuge on earth, become a place with no room for the broken and imperfect? When did “oneness of spirit” become “oneness of attitudes, culture, and traditions”? When did we start exposing the broken people as unfixable, unlovable and when did we start casting the first stone against them, these dear people with stories different than our own? When, oh when?

So here I am, walking through the woods, even in a storm because sometimes the weight of all the hurting in the church rests heavy on my chest. I see the depressed, the overweight, the socially awkward, the labels – thousands of names we throw on people that are different from the rest, and we choose to judge instead of love. I’m so ashamed of how we treat the very people Jesus came to save, how we treat the “least of these” He spoke of so passionately.

Here also, alone in the great outdoors, if I’m perfectly honest, no one can hurt me.

I see a tuft of fur ahead, this bounce of a tail against the flurry of snow and I follow Ervin off the path, see a well-worn trail not yet covered by snow. It is an animal trail, hollowed out from use and there are dog prints, too, smaller than Ervin’s fresh ones, and I think about the coyotes in the area.

“How do you bind up the slow bleeding of your one broken heart and still believe wounded warriors win, still believe that there is no remission of sins or the crossing of finish lines without things getting downright bloody, still believe scars and wounds and broken places might become you and become who you are?” says Ann Voskamp in The Broken Way.

The trail narrows, curves around trees fallen and ancient, rotting fence posts and the wind pushes hard against my face, throwing the stinging sleet in my eyes and then it’s over. We are in a clearing, a small, hollowed out space of refuge and above me. The ice has collected on fine branches like a chandelier, this dance of light reflected and projected. And the snow filters soft, down from the trees around, and it sparkles in the air, falling, like God Himself is sitting at a piano welcoming me home. My knees hit the ground, and Ervin, clutched in my embrace, licks my face, licks away the tears from all the cold in this world.

Safe - Pristine Snowscape

“How do you live with your one broken heart?” It echoes in the sudden silence.

A rabbit peeks at us from beneath the bushes. It sniffs the air, pausing there, letting me see it, and it see me. and I think maybe this is how you live with your one broken heart: you let others see you and you see them. You find that one other broken person and you bear them up, love them, live this one life right alongside them. You find, like in this haven, your own tiny church of misfits and the broken lonely.

“Forgive me,” I pray. “Forgive me for all those I’ve hurt in my hurried intolerance. Help me to see the heart of others how You see their hearts.”

Night is falling, the darkness pressing in but I don’t want to leave this space.

Safe - Moonlit Night

“Help me to love even the ones throwing the stones.” I whisper this last one, like a silent, desperate plea.

“My body was broken for you, for them… my side was pierced, my hands split wide open. I died a broken man, and no man shall come to the Father except through me. No man shall enter the kingdom of heaven unless he first enters into the brokenness of who I am, of who he is…”

I walk home, then, take off my snowshoes on the porch, step inside and Southern Gal, she stands at the sink washing the last of the dishes.

“How do you love others who are different than yourself?” I ask.

“People are complex. But Jesus is simple.”


Photos courtesy of James Kade


What I’m Reading this Week