The Immoveable Mountain: When Mental Illness is Severe

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Seventeenth Sunday after Ordinary Time.

Psalm 42

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
    and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
    a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God, my rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
    because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

Matthew 16:24-27

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 

***

The man at the end of the pew had schizophrenia.

I did not know that, as a child. I knew he sat alone, and that he had a lovely, gentle tenor voice. It wasn’t until much later, until I was an adult, until long after he had passed away, that I learned he had one of those hard labels. 

I only knew him as the man at the end of the pew. A member of the church family I was raised in. I think I’m grateful for that. 

There is a reason I have chosen to arrange this sermon series not by labels, but by experience. For my childhood pewmate, schizophrenia was a constant companion, but it did not control his life. With the help of his family and his doctors, he managed his disease, and with the help of God’s grace, he sang his praises loud. His schizophrenia was difficult, but it did not consume him. 

I have another friend who has anxiety. That sounds so small, right? Just anxiety. We’re all a little anxious these days. Just take some meds. It’ll all be fine. 

Except her anxiety is all-consuming. It has cost her jobs, friendships, joy. Her label may not sound as daunting, but she struggles so, so deeply. 

Two weeks ago I talked about how to live with mental illness as a manageable, chronic condition. Millions of us live with these “invisible” illnesses, and if we choose, we can hide them from everyone but those who know us best. But some of us live with more disruptive conditions—mental illnesses that resist treatment, that make their presence known loud and clear. These are the mental illnesses that are all too visible, that can warp reality, strain and shatter relationships, and can make the people who live with them seem strange, frightening, or even dangerous. 

I do not live with that level of mental illness, and I cannot pretend to understand what it is like. But I think our psalmist can. 

During this series, our call to worship has been a bit of Psalm 42. Like many of you, I have always loved the first line: as the deer pants for water, so my soul longs after you. The poet of this psalm is caught in an exquisite agony between fear and hope, trust and despair. They write:

I say to God, my rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
    because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

This poet is part of the walking wounded. They call out to God even when they are not sure that God is listening. They cling to faith even when it does not seem to do any good. And they trust that one day—one day, they will sing praises again. That what hurts now will not hurt forever. 

Mental illness does not disqualify us from being a person of faith. In fact, I think it takes the deepest faith to walk with God while your brain shifts and squirms away from you. Some of the most compassionate, gifted, insightful, dedicated, and thoughtful Christians I know carry out their ministry while managing serious mental diseases. It’s a powerful witness to talk to them, to see God working through them. They have much to teach us.

The Reverend Sarah Griffith Lund is a Disciples pastor who writes about her own family journey with severe mental illness. Her first book, Blessed are the Crazy, is a beautiful but also brutal read. Both her father and oldest brother live with Bipolar disorder. Her father never received treatment; he was at turns brilliant and violent, wildly generous and completely selfish; deeply faithful and utterly at a loss for why his family left him in the middle of the night. In other words, he was human; human with a particular disease that made it hard to be his best self, but human, through and through. 

After her father’s death, Sarah’s oldest brother, Scott, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well. He has medication and treatment, and sometimes it is better, but not always. There are bad days—horrifyingly bad days. To ask him to get his own treatment alone, Sarah says, is like asking someone to walk to the hospital with two broken legs. But to support him is crushing, too.

Struggling under the weight of this family history, Sarah herself has lost and found her faith in God several times. But now, she writes,

“Being spiritual does not protect us from life’s suffering. I once naively thought that being Christian would save me from sadness and protect me from pain. I thought, If God watches over me, then why would God allow me to suffer? Likewise, If Jesus lives in my heart, then how could my heart be sad? Faith is not an anti-depressant. It cannot be swallowed in order to rewire our brains for happiness. Rather, faith allows us to accept the coexistence of God and suffering. We do not have to choose between two realities, because, if we did, God would have to go. There is no way we could deny the existence of suffering. I believe God exists in this messed-up world, and, in the moments of greatest pain, God is there to wipe away our tears. After all, we aren’t the only ones crying. God is crying too.”[1]

There are tears in Sarah’s story. Tears when her father is not able to fully participate in his children’s birthdays, graduations, weddings; tears when her brother mixes alcohol and too many medications; tears when her cousin is executed for a crime he might not have committed with gentler care as a child; tears when she wonders whether her own religious experiences are just another brand of the family crazy. Yet Sarah holds on to God through all of it, God who is enough for her, and for her father, and for her brother, and for her cousin, even when life seems to leave such gaping chasms between them.

I was in seminary when I heard what felt like my hundredth sermon on “take up your cross and follow me.” It’s a popular text with seminary preachers, and it usually amounts to “take up your student loans and follow me.” It’s never been a scripture I’d liked before; with my attention to the prevalence of suicide and self-harm, I think the last thing we need is to tell people that they have to be hurt to really belong to Jesus. 

But that day, sitting in Watts Chapel, doodling on the edge of my bulletin, I heard the words anew: take up your cross, Jesus says. Not “climb up on your cross,” but take up your cross, and follow me. Keep moving. Don’t stop. 

Sarah hears this scripture the same way I do. She writes, 

“Jesus said that people who want to follow him must take up their crosses. I used to think this was a curse, a sick punishment from God. But what if crosses just exist, like mental illness just exists? My brother did not make the cross of mental illness, but it is still his to bear. As his sister, it is mine to bear too. By bearing the cross of mental illness and carrying it, we can move it—not rid ourselves of it or deny it—to a place of transformation like Golgotha. On that hill the cross became something not to be despised but a thing to transform the world.”[2]

We all have crosses. Some of them have diagnostic labels, and some don’t. It’s not having a cross that’s the choice in life. It’s whether we carry it, or it carries us. Carrying the cross means we have some control. We get to choose to follow Jesus, to follow hope. It’s still heavy. It can still hurt. But it’s a heaviness and a pain that isn’t without hope. 

This is what we are doing this month, in talking about mental health. In telling the stories. We are carrying the cross to a place of transformation, to transform mental illness from something we are frightened of to something that can show the power of God’s love. Because, as Sarah writes, “as people of faith, we can understand our experiences with mental illness as experiences rich with God’s presence. Our suffering need not be devoid of a loving and compassionate God.”[3]

God is with us in our suffering. That is the basic story of the cross.

The media often offers us a narrative of mental illness and violence that is intertwined, and it is true that mental illness can cause people to behave violently, to behave in ways they never would if given a clear-minded choice. But, statistically, people with severe mental illness are some of the most vulnerable among us. They are more likely to be abused, taken advantage of; they are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. According to some studies, as many as a quarter of the homeless population lives with a severe mental illness; nearly half live with mental illness of some kind.[4] People with severe mental illnesses get sent to jail at almost four times the rate of the rest of the population, and stay there twice as long.[5] And the very thing that people with severe mental illnesses need most—communities to care for them, to keep them accountable to their treatment, to welcome them and recognize them as valuable and wanted and loved—is the very thing mental illness makes it hardest to find and cultivate.

Yet we are the church, and we are ready made for this. 

We will talk more next week about what it looks like to care for people with mental illnesses we do not share, but for now, this is what I want you to hear:

We as Christians have a message of hope, even when there is suffering. 

We as Christians have communities where there is routine, stability, warmth, and compassion. The simple routines of worship, singing, communion—these can be lifelines to those whose brains need the stability.

We as Christians have a voice to use to say that the mentally ill are not dangerous, criminal, or lost. No one is lost. In Christ, we are found, again and again and again.

At the end of her book, Sarah includes a few paragraphs from her oldest brother, who lives with bipolar disease. I think it is important, too, to hear Scott’s own testimony, about what it is like to live with a mental illness that has so often stood in his way like an immoveable mountain. Not all of his words are comfortable. But this is his truth:

“Just as I have to accept certain dietary restrictions for diabetes, [Scott writes,] I have to accept certain life restrictions for my bipolar disorder. I cannot do drugs or drink alcohol. I have to guard my sleep cycle. I need to maintain a low level of frustration and stress. I cannot deliver the “MESSAGE” that I was sent here to give to the undoctrinated. I need to avoid excess anger and fear. I am learning to live within my limitations, and to live fully. This is the essence of recovery from mental illness and it is an individual journey one takes with the help of medicine, counseling, support groups, friends and family. I still fantasize about taking my own life, but my sister the doctor reverend told me that I was a core part of the spirit of my family and I do not want to destroy that. Her love, as well as that of the people I have met who travel the road of recovery, has helped bring me back to a fuller spirit life.”[6]

Scott has had to lose one kind of life—but in doing so he has found another. What a witness.

Friends, we are the keepers of a powerful, powerful love: the love of God, that welcomes all, heals all, redeems all, dwells with all. How can we hold that love back from anyone?

Sarah concludes, “Faith cannot cure mental illness, because mental illness is not a sin that can be washed away by the blood of Jesus. But faith can carry the cross and bear the burden of mental illness. Faith can move us into knowing God’s presence in the midst of pain.”[7]

Severe mental illnesses are no walk in the park. But Jesus gave us a faith that can move mountains. So we start, one rock at a time, until we create a world where everyone is cared for, and known, and welcomed, just as they are. Amen. 


[1] Lund, Sarah G. Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church, 2014

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid

[4] https://mentalillnesspolicy.org/consequences/homeless-mentally-ill.html

[5] https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Get-Involved/NAMI-National-Convention/Convention-Program-Schedule/Hill-Day-2017/FINAL-Hill-Day-17-Leave-Behind-_De-Criminalizing-Mental-Illness.pdf

[6] Lund, Sarah G. Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and Church. 2014

[7] ibid

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s