Not a Dinner Party

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Thoughts, Musings and Opinions about Theology, Politics, and Life in Seminary.

On disclosure, discernment and Christian privacy.

Since I’ve started “blogging” again (quotes because I still don’t accept that this is a real word, and certainly not yet a verb), I have been thinking about the concept of sharing/over-sharing/appropriate online conduct/disclosure. Concurrently, I have been thinking about the Christian tendency to TALK a lot about vulnerability, strength in weakness, openness, and brokenness, while at the same time often ghettoizing, condescending to, and dismissing those who actually claim these attributes. I have been thinking about this because it has always been a challenge for me to walk the fragile line between sharing too much or too little. One of the reasons that this is an issue for me is that my life has been fraught with much difficulty, which does—when spoken of—result in judgment on the part of others, which often leads to a kind of demotion or dismissal, ESPECIALLY in the church, PARTICULARLY the evangelical church. Thus, since I have been doing better, and have been more “successful”, in the conventional sense, I have been more reticent to let anyone know that there have ever been any problems, lest doors are again closed to me, and people again see me as one less able to take on responsibility; a broken, dysfunctional person who needs “help”. No one wants to be looked upon this way, and it is only natural to launch a preemptive strike against this possibility by developing total opacity.

At the same time, what is the good of life experience if you are not using it to encourage and minister to others who are going through similar difficulties; to let hurting people know they are not alone? To let the world know that following Jesus does not mean being perfect? And so, there is a fine balance, with an attendant moral obligation to use our lives to serve and love others—to be a light, as we are called to be. Further, following Jesus is supposed to be costly. If we are stepping out on a limb because we believe that sharing our trials and how we have learned from them will minister to someone, then this may be the priority, over and against the priority of ambition or self-preservation.

Another facet of the discussion is the extent to which we can repress or alter our identities. While we are not defined by our “issues,” past (or present) dysfunction, or failures, we are also not persons apart from our personal history. Our personal histories inform who we are in the present; this is an inescapable fact. And so, to pretend that we have not struggled, sinned, erred, despaired, raged, etc. in the past, because we are worried that we will be seen negatively in the present is to repress the self, which will always come back to—pardon the expression—bite you in the ass.

Here I want to address—hopefully without “over-sharing”—the implications of this challenge as they apply to mental illness in the church, and in the world at large. I am not even going to ADDRESS the view that mental illness is a result of sin, or if you just prayed hard enough you would be fine, or that medication is a weakness/un-Christian, etc etc etc. These attitudes are both wrong and dangerous. What I do want to deal with is: what is the role of the mentally ill person—whether the illness is clinical or chronic; from postpartum depression to schizophrenia—in the church, and what is the role of Christian community in regard to the mentally ill person? Should people who are stabilized through treatment but have suffered from mental illness be allowed in church leadership? Should someone who is depressed be a pastor? Should these (hypothetical) people share their experience, or keep quiet in the interest of being reliable and appearing stable in the service of others?

I would assert that this is a major test of whether we put our money where our mouth is when we talk about brokenness; when we talk of God’s grace being especially manifest in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7-10); when we talk about vulnerability; when we talk about authentic community; when we read books about the “wounded healer”. I believe that this is so because there is no one in greater touch with the experience of strength through weakness, or of human brokenness than a mentally ill person, in that, before you have entered treatment, you have been forced to a place of not being able to trust your own mind. Whether you are hearing only the voice of depression—of darkness or the “pit” in the Psalms—or the scarier voices of schizophrenia, mania, or OCD, you have lost your tether to reality, and must evaluate each and every voice, to test it against what you no longer are sure is true or good or right. Further, you may not even believe in the goodness of God, in the reality of His presence, or of His commitment to you, even if you once have believed strongly. Essentially, you know you are broken, you know that there is “no health in you” and can trust no one but God (often working through a good psychiatrist)—but that even this is making a leap: To trust God and/or to seek help in this moment is the ultimate “leap of faith”. When you experience God and healing when in this place, you are absolutely certain that it is a miraculous gift; that it stems from a power external to yourself, because you are sure that it was not there moments ago; that all you were aware of moments ago was darkness and fear.

Even after treatment, diagnosis, and progress, the mentally ill person knows that existence, comfort, peace, and sanity are fragile things, and may be less a guarantee than most are aware. I say this because, while the mentally ill person experiences this in a unique way, clinical depression, anxiety of various kinds, grieving, fear, anger, or other intense emotion are just as near to any of us, and may only take a death, a disappointment, or a dramatic change in our lives to surface.

Should we have teachers, pastors, small group leaders, youth leaders, or elders who openly admit to having a mental illness or who confess that they are experiencing significant depression? I would suggest that these people, if they are in treatment, honest, and accountable about their condition (in a non self-indulgent, attention-seeking way) are in fact uniquely qualified to relate to and walk alongside others in a world that is broken, lonely, and hurting—a fragmented world where everyone feels misunderstood, and is afraid of sharing their deepest selves. Is this the attitude in our churches? Not usually. We like to talk about incarnation and suffering in our churches; we like to encourage people to “open up”; we want people with challenging backgrounds to share a good “testimony,” and how it brought them to the Lord, but no one wants them to be in a position of authority. In reality, most churches in America today still want conventional pastors and leaders, with 2 kids, and a wife who plays piano (nothing wrong with 2 kids or a wife who plays piano, btw)—white men who can smile and shake hands, and who talk about vulnerability without being particularly scathed by suffering or carrying any hint or residue of darkness.

So, as I think about how to live in the world, as someone who wants to pursue a career in ministry, and as someone who believes I have something to offer, not despite but because I have suffered and struggled, I have to think all the time about what I should say and not say: should I share my history of bipolar disorder? Will I be judged? Will I ever get a job? Will I pass any kind of mental screening conducted by most major denominations? Will I even be able to take on leadership positions in school, at my seminary? Will I ever be taken seriously, or am I just a good testimony, someone who’s been through hell but found the Lord?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but what I have learned this year is that, you can blow dry your hair, put on makeup, get straight As, ask questions in class, try to network, talk about your spiritual life, and take your pills every day—but someday, your heart will start beating quickly and your throat will contract, and you’ll have to leave class early; every once in a while you still won’t be able to get out of bed; you’ll have trouble with a prescription; you’ll snap and cry in class. You (I) can’t pretend that your history is a blank sheet or that all was bright and cheery, that it never happened, and it is not integral to who you are. So, I figure, you might as well let people know that they are not alone, and walk with them as they suffer, too. You might as well be honest, and give others permission to do the same thing, experiencing a moment of freedom together. You might as well give people the opportunity to trust you or give you a position of responsibility, without disqualifying yourself before even trying. And if we can’t do that in the Church; if we can’t trust the power of God to use the weak, then I would suggest that we have missed a key part of the Gospel. And so, I press publish with the fear that, perhaps, a potential future employer will google me one day, and cross me off a list of applicants because I have owned my bipolar disorder on the internets, for all to see; but, as Martin Luther never REALLY said, “here I stand, I can do no other.”

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5 Responses

  1. wow, powerful and courageous post. I don’t like saying it but I suspect at some point this honesty, transparency and vulnerability will cost you and I’m sorry for that.

    You’re right in that the problem is our communal assumption of our ability to obtain sufficient perfection. This plagues the church but is not present everywhere. There are places and people who get beyond it. Usually those are ones who have had their presentation of perfection involuntarily shattered too.

    Also sad is the fact that this gets energized most when it comes to money. “flawed” people can minister as volunteers, “professionals” must display “professionality” which culturally means that personal “flaws” are covered up.

    2 Corinthians is a treasure of a book with Paul contrasting himself with the “super-apostles”. Paul with his flaws and weaknesses was the genuine article.

    If you prioritize God using you rather than acclaim or career advancement, you will get what you want. 🙂 pvk

  2. matichuk says:

    While it is questionable whether Martin Luther ever said “Here I stand, I can do no other” (it was attested to by Melanchthon but not collaborated by Catholic sources) the words he said after those are more widely collaborated, “God help me. Amen.”

    The use of Luther in your post is interesting. If there ever was a Protestant saint who struggled with mental illness, this was your man! Clearly this guy had depression, possible bipolar (I am not a psychiatrist and historical diagnosis is tricky). At any rate, here is guy with issues, and God still uses him.

    Thanks for your vulnerability. While I haven’t personally struggled with mental illness, it has touched the lives of many whom I love (family members, friends and a couple of my pastors). I would hate to see them marginalized for their struggles. As you look ahead to pastoral ministry, I would like to think you wouldn’t need to fear. If a church wouldn’t accept you because of your struggle, that is probably a sign that the gospel hasn’t come to that place. Shake their dust off your shoes!

    As to your seminary, half of the faculty has struggled with depression and are quite open about it. I think Regent is a safe place in that regard (just don’t tell them that you think Calvin is a punk ass bitch or they will burn you in effigy).

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post. Shalom

    • annaandgeorge says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, James. I am aware of Luther’s struggles, though hadn’t put that together with my quote; just for some reason was particularly fed up with the inner turmoil over when to share what and with whom, and thought I would put it out there, and ended with that quote. Good connection, though. As you mentioned above, I think that it touches everyone–that everyone knows someone who has been significantly affected by mental illness, but no one talks about it. I hope that this will at least begin to change.

      Re: Regent–I know! And that is part of why I’ve been so thrilled to be here, as people like Rod, Ross and Darrell all talked about their personal experiences with depression in Soul of Min, and Sarah W actually referred to hers when lecturing on Luther. So, it’s been really encouraging. On a final note, I don’t think Calvin is a punk ass bitch! Jeez, you’re going to get me caught up in more Reformed controversy than I already am, here. In fact, I used to BE a Calvinist, and am still on the Reformed side, despite liking more smells and bells these days. Anyway, just don’t want people to think I’m going around insulting Calvin, even though I certainly have a problem with the neo-Calvinists.
      Thanks for your thoughts.
      Peace,
      A.
      P.S. didn’t know you had a blog–will definitely check it out!

  3. matichuk says:

    Wow, you just outed me as a blogger. Dang it. I am actually a sporadic blogger (I haven’t blogged seriously for like four or five years) and my current blog isn’t much for public consumption yet. You are welcome to read it, but I am not sure that it is all that interesting.

    I didn’t actually mean to imply that you have a problem with Calvin, I was just using my statement as an example which may cause some rejection from the faculty. I personally am not a Calvinist, but I love Calvin. I think he is a poet. And you are killing me at Bejeweled with your uber-highscore!

  4. lucas damoff says:

    Beautiful. I affirm your brokenness and especially your willingness to let others see it. It has been a great challenge to me personally as one who also is likely to enter the ministry and wishes he (i) could forget his (my) history and scars.

    Regarding appropriate privacy and disclosure i think it is important we discuss the weightier matters of life personally. Even if we know everyone who reads and comments on our blogs this little text box on a screen is never going to be able to replace a face to face discussion. It is certainly easier to be “broken” on the page or on the screen, but i think it is important to do as much of that ministry face to face. Community that is virtual isn’t really all that communal. I think “blogs” can be great as they allow space to express things with greater thought and more technical clarity than conversation usually affords. But all of the discourse here should be rooted in a deeper personal relationship lest it become a caricature of what is real.

    love,
    luke

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