The Foreign Landscape: Supporting Others’ Mental Health

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Job 2:11-13

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

Mark 5:1-20
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.  Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

***

At the beginning of this sermon series, I told a bit of my father’s story, as he struggled with mental illness, and then a bit of my own story as well. Today, I want to share my mom’s story.

Mom, to the best that anyone can tell, has no diagnosable mental illness. It’s crazy, but it’s true. But she has learned to be a fabulous supporter to the rest of her family, who do. 

When I was at the height of my own depression in high school, I didn’t want anyone to know. One of the most successful tactics mental illness has is drawing us into self-isolation, cutting us off from the very routines and resources we need most. I tried to imprison mom into my secret world, too. But she knew better; she knew that, as Genesis says, that it is not good for humans to be alone. 

I was so betrayed when I learned that mom had told a friend of hers, our pastor’s wife. But with a little distance, I can say now that I am so, so, so grateful that my mom sought out her own support. With Peggy, with my grandparents, with visits to her own therapist, and with a close friend and cousin. It wasn’t a huge team, but she wasn’t alone. She had people who could hold her up, while she held me. 

I think that’s how we all survived. 

For most of this sermon series, I’ve been preaching from the inside—what it’s like to pursue faith with a mental illness. Today, I want to talk about what it’s like to support mental health from the outside. Loving someone with a mental illness can look like peering into a foreign landscape—you and they are walking in totally different worlds. That doesn’t mean you can’t walk with them on their journey. 

The Book of Job is famous for the suffering Job goes through, losing his home, his children, his physical health. He sinks into an all-too-understandable grief and depression. Still, he tries to retain this veneer of holiness; he will not show his anger by cursing God, although so many faithful people do. Job’s wife tells him to give up the act; to curse God and die. Job cuttingly calls her a foolish woman—but she too, has lost her home, and her sons and daughters, and her partner in life. The two of them cannot hold each other up, when they are both drowning. It is unreasonable to expect it.

They need outside support; they need a team. So in come Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, and they sit with Job in silence for seven days and nights. It’s one of the most beautiful moments in all of scripture, the four men just sitting together, letting the grief be heavy, letting the darkness and light go in its cycles. Sometimes there is no right thing to say to someone in the midst of mental anguish. But to be present with them can do miracles. 

I wish that Job’s wife had had friends to come sit with her, too. Surely her grieving heart needed companionship as much as Job did. 

Eventually, Job’s friends start talking, and everything sort of falls apart from there. I cannot stress enough that you cannot argue someone out of a mental health funk. Platitudes like “snap out of it” or “just don’t worry” or “it’s all in your head” are not helpful. Sitting with them is. Just saying “I’m here. I’m here, even if it’s not fun, even if I don’t have anything to say. I’m here with you, in this darkness, until the sun rises again.” 

I actually love that our scripture has a story of mental injury fracturing a marriage, because I have seen that story lived over and over and over again. We cannot expect any one person to take complete care of any other one person in isolation—whether that is a spouse, a parent, or a friend. If one person leans entirely on one another person, they are both likely to fall down.  We need to support each other in teams, in concentric circles of care. 

Even Jesus models this for us—Jesus, who has a strength and compassion so many million times greater than all us humans put together. 

Now, before I begin to talk about this story, I want to offer a word of caution—this is a story about a man our gospels say was living with an unclean spirit, later named as demons—not just one, but a legion of them. His behavior—shouting, self-isolation, and self-harm—certainly reads to my modern ears like the symptoms of severe mental illness. Some folks with mental health struggles like the language of demons, as a metaphor for what happens inside them; others don’t. I don’t, because I don’t like equating mental illness with sin or evil. But whether you want to take this story literally, as the story of a man infested with spirits not his own, or metaphorically, as a man whose brain was not working as we would wish, I think the lessons Jesus teaches us through it are the same. 

The first thing Mark tells us about this man is that he chose to live among the tombs. That he was separated from people, isolated. That he could be dangerous—or at least perceived as dangerous—because at some point people had tried to chain him down, but weren’t able to. Basically, that no one knew how to help him, and they’d given up trying.

But the second Jesus steps on land, this man comes running, and he bows before Jesus, even while his demons shout out in fear.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor who lives with depression and is a sober addict. She notes,

“It’s weird, but out of all the characters in the Gospels who encounter Jesus, the ones who most reliably know who he is are not the religious authorities or even Jesus own disciples.  They are the demons. The demons always recognize Jesus’ authority.  And the demons are afraid. …

[Demons] try to get us to stay away from people who may remind us how loved we are. Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God. And these lies are simply things that Jesus does not abide.”[1]

Jesus heals the man, by casting the demons into a herd of pigs, and we can talk about that another day—but Jesus heals him, and brings him back to his right mind. And because that proves just how powerful Jesus is—none of us will ever offer that kind of miraculous healing to someone we love, so don’t hold yourself to that standard—the local folks want Jesus to leave. But he healed man begs—begs—to go with Jesus. 

And Jesus says no. 

I think that’s really, really important. Jesus says no. 

This man, who has just been healed, is of course latching on to his healer. If we are in pain, and we get the smallest whiff of kindness, or strength, or help, it is natural to cling to that ray of hope with all we have. And to be honest, there can be something flattering in playing the savior to someone who is struggling; in being the one they call, the one they lean on, the only one who can help them. 

But it is not good. 

Jesus knows that his own call will keep him moving, rootless, unstable. It is a hard enough life for him and his disciples. It is precisely the wrong life for this man who has endured so much isolation and instability already. 

Jesus has healed this man, but he cannot be his everything. He cannot be the man’s lone support system. He cannot be the man’s only friend. 

“Go home,” Jesus says. “Go home to your friends (plural). Go be part of a community. Go find your team. You’ve been isolated long enough.”

It isn’t enough to be healed. To stay healthy, we have to be together.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Supporting each other is supposed to be our calling, not our curse.  So, as we wrap up this series, I want to offer some practical wisdom from scripture on how to support someone’s burdens without crumbling under the weight yourself:

The defining distinction of Christianity is that our God came to be with us, in person. Your presence—on someone’s couch or on the phone—can be the very presence of Christ to them. Just to say that you’re with them, that you love them, even if you can’t fix everything.

Like Job’s friends, don’t be afraid to sit in silence. Sometimes there are no words to address the extent of someone’s pain. You don’t have to come with a treatment plan or an inspirational speech. Just be there. 

When Elijah was suicidal, God told him to take a nap and eat something. Sometimes the work of supporting someone in a mental health crisis is just to keep those daily wheels turning. Make them dinner. Order them a pizza. Remind them to take their meds. Watch their kids, or parents, or pets, so they can get some sleep. Keep the wheels turning until things get better.   

Settle in for the long haul. Sometimes finding the right medication or making the right life adjustments can alleviate mental health struggles, but most people will have recurrences. Be prepared for the exhaustion of repeating conversations and crises. 

Supporting people with mental health struggles is rarely glamorous. It can leave you bruised, too. If you are doing heavy lifting, then be gentle with yourself. Make sure you get your own rest, your own breaks, your own restoration. Jesus says to love others as we love ourselves—so if we’re not loving ourselves, we rarely have enough love to spare for others. 

The thing I most want you to hear today is that you cannot be a person’s only support. Even Jesus knew this, and he was Jesus. This is exponentially more true if you have mental health struggles of your own. I know it can feel like a betrayal to a spouse, or parent, or child, or friend to widen the circle of people who know. But you need people, too. Find your own team to support you as you support your loved one. That might be a therapist of your own, friends you trust, or a group like NAMI Family Support Groups. 

Sometimes you may have to say no, for your own mental health, for your own survival. No to helping, no to being sucked in, even no to friendships, even no to marriages. Nos should not be said lightly, but they can be said faithfully. Jesus said no, when he knew it would not be healthy for either of them. But when you can say yes, do—because the work is so needed.

Most of us will never do ministry in war-torn countries, or in starvation-ravaged communities, or with flocks of orphans—the kind of ministry that movies get made about. Instead, I truly believe that it is our ministry with mental health that will take us into the trenches. We will bring peace to war-torn minds. We will bring compassion to souls starving for it. We will be family to those whose demons make them orphans in this world. 

Love the Lord your god with all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

This is the greatest commandment.

Amen. 


[1] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/06/demon-possession-and-why-i-named-my-depression-francis/

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