Where Process and Mental Illness Meet

Hey all! Over this past J-Term, I took a course on Process Theology. As this is the parent field from which my future field–theopoetics–comes, I found it to be one of the most interesting and engaging courses I’ve ever taken, despite the 8:45 a.m. start time and the three and a half hour classes that met four times per week. As an assignment for it, I wrote a (short) sermon from a process perspective on mental illness and the church. This is that sermon.

Let us begin today with a brief exercise. I would like everyone to stand up (as you are able) and greet four people. There is no rule regarding who you need to greet; they need not be strangers or friends, people who look like you or do not, or nearby or across the room. Any four people will do.

You may have noticed some demographics of the four people you greeted. You may have considered their respective ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds, levels of physical ability, height, weight, eye color, hair color, and the list continues. We take in incredible amounts of information about a person just by seeing them, and interacting with them brings even more, such as noticing accents, levels of energy, or even signs of recent illness. We are bombarded with information in these interactions, and, for better or worse, we store that information in our brains as the characteristics of a given person.

One thing you probably did not notice, however, was if any of the people you greeted has a mental illness. There are signs, yes, but they are not often visible in such short interactions. Yet, the National Institute of Mental Health informs us that 26.2 percent of the population—roughly one in every four people—has a diagnosable mental illness.[1] That means, statistically speaking, one of the four people you greeted deals with the harsh realities of mental illness on a daily basis.

This is difficult news for most people, and rightly so. It is heart-wrenching to know that a quarter of the people we know and love struggle with their own minds, bodies, and the chemistry between them.

Why, though, should this be of particular concern to people of faith? Is there a reason that, as religious and/or spiritual people, we should care more about mental illness than a person who does not associate with religion or spirituality?

The simple answer is, yes. We do need to care more. We claim to be people of hope and thus have a responsibility to share that hope. The beautiful thing about hope, too, is that it is an unlimited resource. Like the flame of a candle that can be infinitely shared without any decrease in its original light, hope can spread without being sacrificed.

Some of you might be thinking, “Yes, I agree, but what do you mean by ‘hope?’” To you, I say, good question! Hope is a difficult concept to pin down, as, like other such concepts as love, happiness, success, and peace, it means different things to different people. Regardless, hope is an extremely powerful and meaningful word to those who struggle with mental illness.

Hope, for us, as people of faith, means this: we trust that God is active in our realm and is innately in relationship with all of creation—humanity included—without exception. We trust that the God in whom we believe does not make us suffer and desires that our lives be full of good things. We trust that this God does not stand back and let us suffer, but tries relentlessly to inject hope into our brokenness with each passing moment. We trust that this God is the Hope Divine.

Let us follow the proverbial rabbit trail for a moment and discuss the word “broken.” When we think of this word, many of us picture a shattered dish, or perhaps an electronic device that has lived out its functioning days. I would suggest that, when using this word in relationship to living beings, we think of it more as a broken bone. There is pain, suffering, and difficulty in such a situation, but there is also immense room for healing. The bone might never look quite the same again, as that past fracture has become part of its history and has left scars and memories in its wake, but it will become functional and whole again, with the proper help. In this way, people with mental illnesses can be said to be “broken”—in need of healing—but not terminally so. There is room for hope.

People with mental illnesses can often look at their lives as broken, shattered pieces that no amount of super glue will put back together. How could the hope of which we speak possibly enter in to this situation? It seems to be unfixable, and in many cases, there might be a lot of evidence pointing towards this, but it is not the case.

While a person with a mental illness is staring at the shards of his or her being scattered around him or her, the Hope Divine steps in and sees intrinsic beauty. The person sees something that was once whole, where the Hope Divine sees beautiful, intricate pieces that can make a new thing. The person wonders what happened to the lovely piece of pottery that once was, but the Hope Divine sees a mosaic waiting to happen, and while the person is consumed by the loss, the Hope Divine takes advantage of every moment as an opportunity to inject a new perspective into the story of that person’s life.

It is often difficult to pay attention to God’s aims, however. This is especially true for people whose internal narratives are so loud and overwhelming that hearing a story other than the one they know and believe to be true feels impossible. We have faith in a relentless God of reckless love and unabashed hope, and we trust that this God lives up to these expectations, but we do not claim to believe in God’s omnipotence or think that we have no role in doing God’s work. We are mediators of this hope and have the blessed opportunity and responsibility to speak this into the lives of others around us.

Remember too that people of faith are not exempt from this kind of suffering. According to the Pew Forum, roughly 54 percent of United States inhabitants attend religious gatherings regularly.[2] [3] When combined with the previously mentioned 26.2 percent of the population with diagnosable mental illnesses, basic statistics informs us that around 14 percent of people in this country are regularly attending religious services and have a diagnosable mental illness. This is not an “us and them” situation; this affects all of us without exception.

Therefore, this is not a “mission” or “evangelism.” We are not talking about something those of us in this building have and those outside it do not. This is, however, a way of living—we are called to live as people of hope. It is our responsibility to point to the intrinsic beauty in the broken pieces of our lives, whatever those pieces might be. We are to live as artists, creating mosaics with a zealous fervor that the attention of others might be drawn from the brokenness to the beauty being created from them. We point to the “something new” that hope inspires in a situation and try to show how the difficult and sometimes terrifying parts of our histories can tell a new story.

As we leave this place, let us be people of hope for those who are suffering, and speak new life into even the bleakest of situations. Amen.


[1] “NIMH: Statistics: Any Disorder Among Adults,” National Institute of Mental Health, accessed January 21, 2014, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/Statistics/1ANYDIS_ADULT.shtml.

[2] Information adapted from “Portrait and Demographics of United States Religious Affiliation,” Pew Research Religions & Public Life Project, accessed January 22, 2014, http://religions.pewforum.org/portraits.

[3] “Regularly” is here defined as attending religious gatherings at least once per month.

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