Posts Tagged ‘christian community’

I know this isn’t an original topic, but since I’m having struggles in this area like never before, I figured I might as well put it “out there.” You never know who God might reach if you’re willing to let Him use all of you, even the parts you don’t particularly want exposed.

As Christians, we have this treasure in jars of clay. I know that when I was born again, the old Sandy was crucified with Christ, and she no longer lives. The “new me”, spiritually redeemed and free, is still housed in a cracked pot. Of late that has become glaringly obvious.

The past few months have been an agony of deep despair, hopelessness, mental confusion and emotional pain. I’ve always tended towards the melancholy – it’s just my personality – but this has been different. My sense of worth and value has crashed down around me. Most of my days have been spent alone, looking forward to sleep, dreading the morning. I have thought about suicide repeatedly. I could see no other way out of what has felt like a bottomless pit of pain and despair.

I’m not writing this to elicit pity – I’m truly not. Actually, this morning was the first time in months that I’ve woken up feeling somewhat hopeful. It was such a relief, and I thank God for it. But the past months have challenged my own assumptions and prejudices about what mental illness is – and what mental health is.

Assuming I’m fairly average in this area, I would venture to say that there’s still quite a bit of stigma surrounding mental illness. That’s surprising considering the record numbers of people who are apparently being treated for depression, bipolar disorder, and so on. I think there’s often an extra dimension to the stigma in Christian circles.

There was a time when I vowed I would never take antidepressants, because I was a woman of faith, familiar with the scripture from Isaiah 53 – “by His stripes we are healed.” I’ve heard people at church voice this attitude recently. One woman told me about how she was depressed and her doctor prescribed Paxil, but she refused to take it – and God healed her. On the one hand, I think it’s awesome when God heals someone of their illness, mental or otherwise. On the other, there can be a subtle pride underlying this attitude. It’s not so much an expression of faith in God, as it’s faith in our faith in God.

I’ve come to realize that mental illness and mental health are not so much polar opposites as they are gradations on a continuum. None of us can claim that our thoughts are completely healthy. But most of us are able to tell the difference between thoughts that are rational and can/should be acted upon, and those that aren’t. So, here are some of the things I’ve gleaned from my experience so far:

  • Thinking that killing oneself is a reasonable, viable (no pun intended) solution is a good sign that your mental state is not healthy, and you need help. I needed help, badly. Thankfully help is available, and I have had the support needed to access it.
  • Mental health and isolation are never found together, at least not for long. It’s a conundrum, because the worse I felt about myself, the more I wanted to be alone. This is typical in depression.
  • It’s probably a good idea not to disparage psychiatric drugs or counselling in Christian circles, because chances are, someone within earshot is availing themselves of one or both.
  • Similarly, don’t think that because you’ve had a few rough patches, you understand what clinical depression is. I really didn’t understand until recently. As well-meaning as your suggestions might be, telling a depressed person to pray & read the scriptures more can just add to their sense of shame, failure and aloneness.

Next time, I’ll explore how the church can help people who struggle with mental illness. Hint: Churches who are “real” from the top down foster mental, emotional and spiritual health.


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Inside-out BearI’ve been thinking about how the Lord turns our lives inside out for the benefit of others, if we let Him. The treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, are some of the most powerful ‘ministry tools’ we have. It’s not easy to do, of course, because we have our reputations to uphold. 🙂 But whoever saves his life will lose it, and whoever loses it for Jesus’ sake will find purposeful, abundant, eternal life.

A few weeks back, I was getting dressed and had something quite bizarre happen. I put my camisole on, then a blouse over top. As I was brushing my teeth, I noticed that the blouse was inside out! I laughed at myself, thinking how stunned that was. So I took it off to reverse it, and the camisole was inside out too!! Now I was really laughing. But then I heard the Holy Spirit say, “just like your clothes are inside out, I want you to turn your life inside out.” 

Isn’t turning our lives inside out the least we can do, in view of God’s mercy? Jesus, God covered in flesh, turned Himself inside out for us on the cross. I’m praying about what turning myself inside out means. I guess it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing for everyone, but the principal is the same.

I had a discussion with a friend from church recently and she told me about her brother, who is gay. It was a beautiful conversation. She talked about how she couldn’t help loving her brother’s boyfriend, even though she didn’t think she’d be able to. One of the things she mentioned that really impacted me is that Christians who have a gay loved one are often ‘in the closet’ about it at church. I guess they feel shame and a sense of fear of what other Christians will think. It shouldn’t be like that. If we can’t be honest and open in the family of God, where can we be?

And that ties in with turning our lives inside out. Allowing God to use our life as an open book lets others see the miracle of His healing power. Lots of things stop us from being this vulnerable. Fear is a big one. Personally, I couldn’t do it before because I was paralyzed by shame. Shame is like cancer. It was lodged there right at the core of my identity, tainting everything about me, continually metastasizing & causing all sorts of secondary problems. How Jesus healed my shame, I’ll never understand on this side of heaven. But healing is so much more than focusing on the individual struggles we face. It requires His touch in the very centre of who we are. That’s why simply trying to change our outward behaviour doesn’t work. If it did, we could overcome sin by our own efforts. Sinful behaviour is the visible evidence that we need radical heart surgery. God alone can go that deep, healing the whole person.

Sometimes He heals instantly and completely, sometimes healing is a life-long process. Whatever is most beneficial from the standpoint of eternity is what He does. And He doesn’t always heal every malady or problem. I wish He did! I would love to be able to taste food, to smell flowers, to live without the musical accompaniment in my left ear. (all results of a head injury I sustained six months ago – my survival is a miracle) I wish He would completely remove every longing my flesh has for things that displease Him. 

And you know what? I’m confident that He can do all the things I’ve mentioned, and more. And He is at work in me, changing & molding and transforming me all the time, making me fit for service. I don’t want my focus to be on ‘getting healed’, because if it is, I can’t focus on Him. And if I’m not focused on Him… what’s the point?

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max-176341I haven’t thought about three-legged races for ages. In fact, it’s been so long that I couldn’t even remember what they were called. I was talking to a friend about the different gifts we have in the Body of Christ, and how they fit together according to God’s plans and purposes. As we spoke, I suddenly saw this image in my head of two people running side by side, rather clumsily, with the left leg of one tied to the right leg of the other, adjacent arms draped over each other’s shoulders for support. If any picture is worth a thousand words, surely this one is. 

There are a few interesting things about the three-legged race. For starters, calling it a “race” is probably a bit misleading. The objective is ostensibly to cross the finish line first, but doing so doesn’t require speed as much as it requires cooperation.

Another thing that becomes clear after a few failed attempts is that being paired with someone of roughly the same height makes your job a lot easier. A large discrepancy in this area pretty much guarantees that you’ll crash to the ground before the finish line. As a result, watching a mismatched pair can be pretty comical, as long as no one gets hurt.

The Bible often uses “the race” as a metaphor for life, and more specifically, for the Christian life. For example, in Hebrews 12 we are admonished to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us”. In 1 Corinthians 9:24 Paul tells us to “run in such a way as to get the prize”. To the Galatians, who had been led away from the simple message of salvation by grace through faith, he says, “you were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” Even the Old Testament mentions the subject. In Ecclesiastes 9:11 it says, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong”. Doesn’t this contradict our culture’s notion of independence, competition, and hard work – the “you can be anything you want if you work hard enough” belief system we have in North America?

“So what’s wrong with that?” you may ask. Actually, there’s a lot right with it. The foundation of our country was poured by people who believed in hard work and sacrifice, and they believed that God would reward them in due time. It’s worth remembering that many of them came from countries where their “lot in life” was pretty much determined by their parents’ class background. No amount of hard work could lift someone in 19th century England from being a scullery maid at Buckingham Palace to being the Queen.

What comes to mind when you think of a race? Do you have visions of super-fast, uber-muscular athletes running at the Olympics? I guess that’s what I think of. I was one of those sporty girls growing up, and my family was (and is) pretty competitive. The expression, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”, might exaggerate somewhat the degree to which winning mattered, but only marginally. Being first, winning, and being the best were all highly prized in my family.

So when God talks about our life being a race, what picture do you think He has in mind? When He tells us to “run in such a way as to get the prize”, is He telling us to trample over anyone who gets in our way, to do whatever it takes to cross that line in first place? Of course not, you say. You’re right, He can’t possibly have that in mind, because God’s ways and His priorities are upside-down compared to ours. He says things like “the first will be last and the last will be first” and “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave”.

The three-legged race can add much to our understanding of what God means when He tells us to “run in such a way as to get the prize”. Here are a few characteristics worth pondering. The three-legged race:

  • cannot be run alone, unless you have three legs;
  • is less about speed than it is about timing and coordination;
  • is easier if you are “equally yoked”;
  • can result in pain and/or embarrassment if you aren’t;
  • requires cooperation and a unity of purpose – you must be heading in the same direction;
  • takes humility – when pride rears its ugly head, you’re bound to end up on the ground;
  • isn’t well suited to rugged individualists;
  • has as its main objective not falling over. Crossing the finish line is secondary;
  • is a learning process. Early attempts at moving forward together will likely be clumsy and uncoordinated. You will improve with practice if you don’t give up.

Once we become children of God, there’s a way in which we are joined together just as if we were running a three-legged race. Romans 12:4, 5 says, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Our purpose in life shifts radically once we become part of God’s family. It’s no longer about me, my goals and desires, or even my happiness. It’s about being part of a coordinated, unified effort to share God’s love and His message of salvation with the world. 

Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD
(Zechariah 4:6)

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I attended a bible study at church recently in which our brokenness and shame were likened to a dark cave – a place we know exists, but we’re afraid to go there, and do everything we can to conceal it from others. I’ve done some serious cave-dwelling in my life, as many of us have. During the summer I came close to giving up the fight a number of times. I guess the shame I felt over my brokenness just about pulled me under. What I found most difficult was that I struggled, for the most part, alone.

As I dwelt in that cave of shame and self-hatred, I wanted more than anything to get out. I wanted to be “happy Sandy” again, the agreeable, likable, people-pleasing version of myself – hiding all the “unacceptable” parts of me, as if that would make them go away. I guess I slid into self-pity at times, but I don’t think that’s what kept me in the cave. I think it was God who kept me there. Not that He enjoyed seeing me in pain, but He knew that I needed to enter into the parts of myself that I found so repugnant and face them, so I could see that He was there. He wasn’t disgusted by me or surprised in the least. I think His main aim was to show me that what I needed most was to accept myself (all of me) and to realize the “cure” for what ailed me was simple: acceptance and surrender. He can heal, but I have to let Him, in His way, in His timing.

I think shame, fear and hiding tend to coexist. I know they have in me for as long as I can remember. Even in the case of my sexuality, I went from early negative experiences to sexual relationships with women, which back then were still fairly “taboo”. It’s vast and complex the way our identities are shaped and distorted by things that happen to us and by choices we make. Even now, this beautiful gift that God created human beings to have as man and wife is a source of ambivalence for me. Not that I spend a lot of time thinking about it, but my desires, my “orientation” is not %100 in either direction. There has been significant change, for sure. A big part of the change has been in my view of sex. It doesn’t seem nearly as important as it once did. I do have a choice whether to act on my feelings or not, just as we all do.

I think God does do some of His best work in caves, if we cooperate with Him. The first step in cooperating with what He wants to do in us is to acknowledge our brokenness, our need. That’s one of the things that I’d really love to see change in the church. My experience with every church I’ve attended has been the same – I know I’m painting with pretty broad strokes, but this is my general observation – Christians are a group of people who act like they have it all together on the outside, but behind closed doors many are falling apart. I’m not saying that with a critical spirit at all, but because I’m certain that Jesus didn’t die intending His body to be a bunch of chronic cave-dwellers, hiding in shame and fear while pretending nothing’s wrong.

How can we really extend hope to the world? I think we all need to “come out”, so to speak. To acknowledge openly the things we struggle with. I know it’s risky, but we could really become a place of hope, of refuge, of healing, if more people would step out in faith. A huge part of what keeps people trapped in shame is the belief that no one could possibly understand or relate to their struggles, and the fear that others would judge them if they knew. Could we actually hold one of the keys to setting people free? What if more of us were to speak honestly about our struggles, even in the midst of them? I know Jesus is my healer, my redeemer, my all, but that doesn’t mean life on earth is pain-free. Nor does talking about pain and struggles in any way negate His ability to heal.

The devil has a lot invested in keeping the dividing walls of shame & fear in place. His poison grows in the dark, isolated parts of our hearts. When Christ’s light shines on these areas, we can be set free, and help to set others free. It’s not a question of whether caves exist in our brothers’ and sisters’ hearts. The question is whether we will be brave enough to admit that we’re all cave-dwellers, desperately in need of Jesus’ healing touch.

(For an excellent post that covers similar ground, check out Kathy Escobar’s blog, the carnival in my head.)

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There are certain themes that I return to again and again on my journey. One that figures prominently for me is a deep-seated sense of being on the outside looking in, of being different, of not belonging – and the conviction, deep in my heart, that I never will. This type of self-perception is extremely tenacious, rooted in life experiences and my reaction to them that probably precedes my ability to remember.

On one hand, I really want to belong, and some of my behaviour is no doubt unconsciously driven by this desire. On the other, being an “outsider” isn’t all bad. It fosters a perspective that can be very helpful in relating to people who don’t know Jesus – the type of people who would never walk through the doors of a church because they feel like misfits.

I emailed a friend last night and asked her to keep praying for me. Those familiar voices were invading my thoughts again, the inner voice of a little girl who grew up feeling different and ashamed – “you will never fit in, you’ll always be on the outside looking in”. As I reflect on all of this today, I’m actually thanking God for my uniqueness. What needs to go is the shame. I get a lot of encouragement from thinking about Jesus. He didn’t fit in. The religious authorities rejected him completely, to the point of a mock trial that ended in his crucifixion outside the city walls. Jesus invested himself mainly in sinners, losers and outsiders.

It’s so easy to become complacent as a Christian, especially in our part of the world. I suppose you could say that many people who attend church regularly do so because they want the comfort of belonging. But church was never meant to be inwardly focused. We may draw comfort from journeying together with shared beliefs and values, but if the main point of our existence isn’t outreach, something’s wrong.

I was reading an excellent blog, Bridging The Gap, which contains a quote from Jean Vanier:

“When religion closes people up in their own particular group, it puts belonging to the group, and its success and growth, above love and vulnerability towards others; it no longer nourishes and opens the heart. When this happens, religion becomes an ideology, that is to say, a series of ideas that we impose on ourselves, as well as on others; it closes us up behind walls. When religion helps us to open our hearts in love and compassion to those who are not of our faith so as to help them to find the source of freedom within their own hearts and to grow in compassion and love of others, then this religion is a source of life”

Help us all, Lord, to have your priorities as we gather together in your name – not so much to focus on our own needs, but to venture outside the city walls and extend your love to outsiders.

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I was invited over for lunch today with an old friend and her new girlfriend – well, new to me – they’ve been seeing each other for close to two years. We had a great time together – a delicious meal, lots of good discussion and laughs. It has me thinking tonight about the “christian community” and how they would respond to such a thing. I know I’m generalizing, but I’d wager (if I were a betting woman) that many christians would “tut tut” my friendship. I think that’s a real shame. I have no doubt that Jesus was right there with me, enjoying the companionship of these two beautiful, intelligent women. Why? Is it because he has shifted his moral compass? No. But Jesus, God incarnate, loves us because that’s who he is – not because any of us deserve it. If Jesus’ love was conditional on our behaviour, he would have to shift his moral compass every time. None of us deserve God’s love. We’re all in the same boat in that regard.

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