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Friday, January 13, 2006

Christians and mental illness, part 2

This isn't the originally-planned part 2, but I came across an article at ChristianityToday.com that discusses what I consider to be a very important aspect of mental illness. I'd like to talk about this first. In part 1, I mentioned my conviction that a major component of mental illness is the inability or unwillingness to adapt to proper social protocol and get along with others. This is the root of my charge to Christians (or anyone) to be shrewd yet also forgiving and loving, i.e., a true friend, to those who suffer mental/emotional problems.

An excerpt from the article:

As I listened to the homeless relate their prayers, I was struck by the prayers' down-to-earth quality-indeed, their resemblance to the Lord's Prayer. "Give us this day our daily bread": They all had stories about running out of food, praying, and then finding a burrito or uneaten pizza. "Deliver us from evil": Living on mean streets, these believers pray that daily. "Forgive us our trespasses": Deep down in each lay buried secrets of shame and regret.

After 25 years of ministering to the homeless, John, a trained counselor, has a theory that many street people suffer from attachment disorders. In childhood, they never learned to bond with parents or other people, and never learned to bond with God, either. They find it difficult to commit, to open up to another, to trust. They see the world as an unsafe, alien place.

John noted the ripple effect of this disorder: "Sometimes the people I work with go crazy, literally insane, because they can't stand being alone with their dark thoughts and secrets. A friend of mine ran a street ministry similar to ours. He had secrets about failures and financial pressures that he never told anyone. One day, his wife walked in the front door and found her husband, my friend, swaying from a rope attached to the banister."

From my time with the homeless, I learned a new meaning to prayer: It can be a safe place to bare secrets. Those of us fortunate enough to have a spouse or a trustworthy friend can share our secrets. [but not always!] If not, at least we have God, who knows our secrets before we spill them. (The fact that we're still alive and loved shows that God has more tolerance for whatever those secrets represent than we may give God credit for.)

"If I'm right about the attachment disorders," John said, "the best ministry I can offer is a long-term relationship. I hope that over the years and decades street people learn to trust me as someone who can handle their secrets. I hope that trust will gradually spill over to God. I tell people who encounter the homeless that eye contact and a listening ear may be more important than food or money or Bible verses. They need to connect in some small way with another human being, someone who sees them as a person of worth."

A few days later, I came across this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, written in the form of a prayer:

Make it so the poor are no longer despised and thrown away.
Look at them standing about-
like wildflowers, which have nowhere else to grow.

[emphases added]

Rilke is one of my favorite poets. His mention of the poor may give one a picture of those lacking in material prosperity, but I submit that the true poor are those who are poor in any capacity, i.e., lacking any good thing. I love the picture of the mentally/emotionally ill as wildflowers. I think our "normal" tendency is to view them as weeds, as persons lacking in beauty. Yes, they may indeed have ugliness about them, but surely they know that. Can anyone really think this makes them feel any better, or helps them to get any better? Of course not; not without a proper understanding of the true nature of their ugliness and what can be done about it. Not outside the context of the imago dei and of God's wisdom, forgiveness, and purpose –- with understanding of the true and real and glorious way out! The mentally/emotionally troubled are often in such a "pit" that they disdain even their good qualities. They are often unable to distinguish between what's good and redeemable about them and what's not. They also may not believe that God can indwell them (via the Holy Spirit) and glorify Himself in them.

This is where the true Christian friend can offer literally life-changing aid. Such a friend can enable the deeply confused person to see the flower in themselves and the redemption that only God can give them. The person thus encouraged may learn to see the full truth about themselves and thereby grasp it, embrace it, and grow in grace and healing.

There is probably not a one mentally/emotionally ill person who is not also deeply, agonizingly lonely. The loneliness exacerbates the illness, which exacerbates the loneliness, which – you get the picture. Yes, the ill person may also sincerely seek God and find great comfort in Him, as well they should..or they may not. But we are all flesh-and-blood creatures, and as such have what I believe to be a God-given craving for connection with other flesh and blood. Not that this should be an excuse for anyone to hold back from God or do anything improper, but the fact that God is the ultimate Healer, Teacher, and Comforter should offer no excuse to anyone for withholding flesh-and-blood friendship from someone who really needs it. It may be a flesh-and-blood friend who enables someone to actually conceive of and come to believe in a forgiving, healing God. Such a friend can also help that person deal with the human "cost" of following Him.

Even the healthy or relatively healthy person (as in, properly functioning member of society) needs this kind of friendship. Imagine how much more so does the ill person.

Do you know any wildflowers? Tend them :-)

3 Comments:

  • I think the only real way we can do any tending is to pray for God's direction and knowledge to lead us in the ways and hows of the tending. Great post Bonnie. Thank you.

    By Anonymous Brian in Fresno, at 1:09 PM  

  • That quote from Rilke is beautiful. My husband and I help a small church in inner city Baltimore one Sunday a month (it's the same Sunday each month). I see the same thing in people - all people. It's all a matter of degree. Some people are damaged to the point that it's medically noticeable as a disorder. Others have hurt from physical or emotional abuse that leaves them scarred in a few areas, but not all.

    I met a girl last year who loved animals passionately, but she couldn't relate to people. I think the Lord reaches out where we can hear Him.

    By Blogger Terri, at 6:11 PM  

  • Another good post, Bonnie. Thanks.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, at 9:26 AM  

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