Listening (and responding) to mental Illness

Some of the people I love most deal daily with depression, or the effects of medicating it. Others deal with seasonal affective disorder, the kind of depression that gets worse as the shadows of fall getdepression1 longer. Some in our community of faith live with complicated disorders like schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. Anyone who has been there and done that knows the challenge and pain. 

In the wake of Matthew Warren’s death two years ago (Matthew is Rick Warren’s son), Rebekah Lyons penned this remarkably practical and sensitive post. Toward the end, she references Warren’s public letter about the daily war his son faced in his battle with depression (a battle he lost, ultimately succumbing to suicide).

I am reposting the heart of Rebekah’s post here for those who need a word of encouragement today as you deal with your own, or someone else’s, illness:

For those afflicted, depression enters when we’ve lost hope for the future. When we no longer imagine a life that is free. Whether it’s triggered by a chemical imbalance or a change in circumstances, facing it in isolation is the most treacherous. At precisely the time we need others, our inclination is to turn inward.

I’ve been comforted to know I’m not alone.

Anxiety and panic are my nemesis. In my struggle to break through the mental distress, I’ve found comfort and promise in the writings of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. His summation that the root cause of anxiety is a sense of unfulfilled responsibility resonates.

For me, the low surfaces when I am not contributing to someone or something. When I lose a vision for my life, purpose hides beyond my grasp. But when I recover my sense of purpose and calling — to help women navigate these hidden troubles — meaning rushes in.

Over the past three years, the promises of Jesus have been paramount in helping me walk forward. Uttering hushed prayers in subways as the doors close in, softly crying out for rescue on long desolate Central Park walks in the dead of winter. God’s presence has always been a guiding force, my source for purpose beyond myself.

For each of us, this tragedy raises important questions: How do we better care for the 26%?   What is your role in bringing healing to those who hurt? Perhaps these three postures could go a long way.

Remove the stigma
.  As people of faith, let’s talk about mental illness, giving others permission to do the same. Let’s release the stigma that keeps this a secret, holding untold millions captive. All secrets lose power when they exit the dark. The church is a place where we should be able to come as we are, with our longings for what we hope to be. Jesus always pursued the weak with open arms. When we are broken and fragile, He draws us closer to Him in ways we’ve never known. In my own journey, I’ve never felt more loved and cared for by God than in my darkest hours. When we grieve, we are comforted.

Be present
. Let’s be present. Let’s love unconditionally. Eye to eye, we must be honest about our own struggles. Especially in the church, no one should have to hide or sneak around or double his or her dose. Let’s be on-call in the late night hours, when the phone rings and we are summoned to show up. What if our communities of faith were the one place you could count on to find a listening ear, a hand to hold, another loving human being with a compassionate and sensitive response?

Don’t pretend to have all the answers. 
Let’s not shame mental illness with the judgment of spiritual weakness. As Christians, we believe this side of heaven all disease, sickness and pain is rooted in a world broken by sin. But there are real consequences to living amidst the mess. To oversimplify these complexities would be naive at best, negligent at worst. Faith should never undermine the necessity of doctors, of medications and therapy, because we must deploy every effort afforded to us when we tackle our brokenness.

I’m comforted to know that even in this tragic moment, America’s beloved pastor still teaches us. Warren’s sensitivity and understanding in the closing words of his letter give hope for a new posture within the church. He acknowledged that “Kay and I often marveled at (Matthew’s) courage to keep moving in spite of relentless pain. I’ll never forget how many years ago … Matthew said, ‘Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?’ But he kept going for another decade.”

With that kind of honest, raw vulnerability and perspective, who wouldn’t want Rick Warren to be their pastor? Or their dad, for that matter.

Rebekah Lyons is the author of Freefall to Fly: A Breathtaking Journey Toward a Life of Meaning. She writes on womanhood, purpose and mental health at 

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The Parable of the Church Planter (or, “Why I’ve Been Angry With God”)

There’s an old story about a man who is asked by God to push against a large rock. God tells him this is important work, this rock-pushing. He asks the man to give it everything he’s got. The guy obliges. In fact, he takes up this call excitedly. “stone3I am going to be a great rock-mover for the Lord!” He begins the work early the next morning. He pushes. He shoves. He leans into it. He gives it everything he’s got.

The rock doesn’t budge. Not even a little.

This becomes the man’s daily grind. Every day, he goes out to this rock (that he can’t possibly be very fond of by now) and he pushes against it from morning till night. He tries every angle. He surveys the options. He gives it all his strength and all his time and all his concern and all his best ideas.

And the rock doesn’t move. Not a hair.

Some time into this venture (years, possibly), the guy is wildly frustrated. Calloused. Patience worn thin. Very nearly burned out by all this rock-pushing. He turns to God in his frustration and says, “What the heck was this about? I have done exactly as you asked. I’ve done everything I know how to do to get this rock to move. I was passionate about rock-moving. I thought you had a plan for me. I thought you’d be there for me. But all these years and I have gotten absolutely nowhere. Why would you ask me to do this?”

To which God replied, “Oh, but I never asked you to move the rock. I only asked you to push against it. And you’ve been incredibly faithful to the task. Well done.”

“Why in the world would you ask me to push against a stone you knew would never move?”

“The project was never about the stone,” God replied. “The project was about obedience.  Sanctification. You’ve spent years at this task, and now look at you! Well-toned muscles. Tough skin. Seasoned passion. What a great return on this investment of time!”

At this revelation, the very core of the man was shifted to some new place.

God went on. “Stones moved here or there don’t amount to much in the Kingdom of God. But people who get moved by stones?  Now, that is cause for rejoicing in the Kingdom.”

And oh, what dreams I had. What ambition. I was going to move mountains. And now to find out that the mountain was designed to move me.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.


(This story was first posted on my old blog, Fivestones, in 2012.)

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Grow up.

” … speaking the truth in love,
we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head,
into Christ …” – Ephesians 4:15

This line in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus should come with sound effects, like a siren or an alarm. Something to warn you it’s coming, so you can duck. This line is a revolution in twenty-one words. A trumpet blast announcing the charge on my immaturity and yours.

Speak truth in love, Paul says, like anyone even knows what that means any more. We’ve become so used to spin, which is incredibly detrimental to real community. We’ve learned to couch everything for personal gain, so that the norm for public discourse is much more argument than advocacy. More about my own provision and protection than the common good. Meanwhile, real truth wrapped in real love requires real trust. Does Paul not get that?

Do I?

Grow up in every way, he presses. Every way. Not just the convenient ways — the places where it is more fun to be of age than not — but in every way. In speech and silence, in public and private, in submission and responsibility. In love, power and self-discipline. Maybe especially self-discipline.

In other words, Paul counsels, act like adults. Which flies in the face of so much that comes at us from every other direction. We’re encouraged to pander to our inner child, to coddle his or her pain beyond good sense, to keep putting Spiderman band-aids on gaping childhood wounds so we never actually have to heal. We are encouraged to a state of arrested development, spending far more time accommodating the child we used to be than encouraging the adult we can become.merry-go-round

It is time to grow up, Paul says. Heal. Move on. We will never get to the richness that is the good life if we never challenge ourselves to maturity.

In Peter Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, he talks about how common it is to find immaturity in leadership, so that we’ve learned to accept that:

  • You can be a dynamic gifted speaker for God in public and be an unloving spouse and parent at home.
  • You can function as a church council member or pastor and be unreachable, insecure, and defensive.
  • You can memorize entire books of the New Testament and still be unaware of your depression and anger, even displacing it on other people.
  • You can fast and pray a half-day each week for years as a spiritual discipline and constantly be critical of others, justifying it as discernment.
  • You can lead hundreds of people in a Christian ministry while driven by a deep personal need to compensate for a nagging sense of failure.
  • You can pray for deliverance from the demonic realm when in reality you are simply avoiding conflict, repeating an unhealthy pattern of behavior traced back to the home in which you grew up.
  • You can be outwardly cooperative at church but unconsciously try to undercut or defeat your supervisor by coming in habitually late, constantly forgetting meetings, withdrawing and becoming apathetic, or ignoring the real issue behind why you are hurt and angry.

Scazzero says we’ve come to expect these things in the community of Jesus. We’ve normalized the unhealthy. In fact, in his rants about spiritual leadership in the first century, Jesus himself called these very behaviors roadblocks to God’s Kingdom (see Matthew 23:13, The Message).

That’s quite a charge. A roadblock that stops my growth is bad enough, but roadblocks are not discerning. What I’ve done to block my own growth may end up blocking the spiritual maturing of others. My refusal to grow up in every way into Him, who is my Head, can actually stunt or stop the growth of the people around me. Which is no small matter. How selfish would I have to be in order to allow that?

Don’t glide too quickly past this truth: When I refuse growth in myself, I deny growth in others. This may well be a key not only to unlocking your own way forward, but also to finding a more wholesome, productive place within the community of faith.

Who knew that growing up could be such a revolutionary act?

What evidence do the people closest to you have that there is actually an adult living in your adult-sized body? What would you have to relinquish in order to grow up in every way into Him, who is your Head?


(This post first appeared in August, 2014. I’m inspired to publish it again today after a beautiful time of worship in which we prayed for all our mission partners.  I am inspired today to stretch toward God’s highest and best version of myself.  May you be inspired likewise.)

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A very hopeful New Room

This week, I’ve been attending and being renewed at the New Room Conference, hosted by Seedbed (the publishing house of Asbury Seminary).  It has been a great gift to hear holiness, sanctification and global Christianity preached by folks who are deeply embedded in and passionate about seeing the Kingdom come.

These three days have been Wesleyan theology at its best.  We worshiped lavishly and expressively. We prayed deeply. We talked about the means of grace and mission, about travailing prayer and scriptural holiness. In all the ways you’d want it to be, it was Pentecostal:  globally focused, vibrant, Kingdom-minded.

The point of New Room is not to bog down in current denominational issues but to raise ourselves up above the tree line (as J.D. Walt says) to see what connects Wesleyans aroNew-Room-Covenantund the world. By Wesleyans, we are not talking about a single denomination but a theological strain that is orthodox, evangelical and missional. The opportunity to network with and appreciate faithful voices from many Wesleyan tribes was truly a gift.

What most excites me about this room of about 700 Christian leaders is that at least half of them are younger than 35. I am having conversations this week with young adults who are hungry to see a genuine, transparent version of holiness blossom within their generation. They are excited about things like accountability, community-based discipleship and the means of grace.  Stanley John, a dynamic young Indian preacher raised in Kuwait, is preaching even as I type, and he is setting this room on fire with stories of moves of the Holy Spirit around the world.

I find myself repenting this week for the hours upon hours of time I’ve wasted in conversations, prayers and angst over the political unrest within my own denomination. Lord, forgive me. For the concern of our own survival, we are missing powerful moves of God happening all around us. The fact is, God will go where God is received.

I leave this conference hopefully, gratefully … reminded that I am not alone. In fact, far from it, I feel surrounded. In my spirit, I am hearing Elijah on the mountain, saying to God, “I alone am left,” while God says, “To the contrary, there are thousands in the valley waiting for you. Get to work.”

Yes, Lord. I hear you.  Get to work. The world is hungry, waiting, and ready.

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Habit #7: Joyful people know who (and whose) they are.

My daughter looks just like me, a fact that just plain tickles me.

People have always remarked about our resemblance. It seems that the older she gets the more obvious it becomes. We’ve had people say (and I quote), “Ohmygoodness, you guys are like twins!” Which I think must sound more like a compliment if you’re 52 than it does if you’re 24. I don’t know how my daughter feels about it, but I just love it. I love being her mom, and I love being identified with her.

I am not, however, going to cross the line of crazy like Wendy Brown. Wendy had an unfulfilled dream to be a high school cheerleader. She’d tried out when she was actually in high school but didn’t make the cut so she tried out again when she was 33, posing as her daughter (who I assume was a teen). It would have worked, except that the check she wrote for the cheerleading outfit bounced.

I need to step in here and publicly announce that I will not attempt to steal Claire Marie’s identity in order to become a high school cheerleader.

Not now, not ever.

It is one thing to be told you look like someone. It is another thing entirely to soak up that person’s identity. Of course, we do it. When we aren’t confident in our own identity, we steal it where we can find it. We live vicariously through our children, or we act out co-dependently. We borrow on the happiness of others. I will only be happy if this person is happy. Or worse yet, I will only be happy if I can control the people around me because I need them to behave in certain ways so I can be happy. 

We are like human tofu. We don’t think we have much flavor of our own, so we absorb the flavor of whatever we are around.

We can do a lot of damage that way.  When we aren’t confident in our own identity, we end up stealing from others to get our needs met. What makes the good news of Jesus Christ that much better is that he actually comes as an antidote to this dysfunction.  When we take Christ into our lives, we are given a new identity.  Or maybe it is more accurate to say we are finally exposed to the identity that is rightfully ours, the one imprinted into us at our creation. It is a great relief to find out we don’t have to generate it on our own. It is there for the taking; our part is acceptance.

It is a great relief, too, to find we no longer have to compete for our identity. Jesus gives us a new identity then invites us to live it out boldly, claiming him as our nature and his life as ours. If it is not ours to make happen, nor ours to perfect, then our right response is more surrender than effort. When the focus of our identity is vertical, we no longer feel the need to compete with people and our relationships become more centered on partnership. Our sense of identity breeds confidence, which breeds love, joy, peace … and other fruit of the Holy Spirit. And it moves us away from hate, anxiety and fear.

This is a physical reality. At the back of your head, where your head meets your neck, is where your fear center sits.  This is the first part of your brain to develop, and the most rudimentary. Now put the heel of your hand to your forehead. The front part of our brains is the most developed part; it is where rational thinking happens. This is also where our identity center is. This is where our life purpose is worked out. They say this is also where personal faith is developed.

Hear that.  Faith happens far from our fear center and in the same place as our identity center. Faith, identity and Jesus converge in the most well developed part of us. When I know who (and whose) I am, I no longer feel the need to steal my identity from others. Instead, I am free to live in partnership with them and in joyful surrender to Christ.

How amazing this life is.  And how beautiful our design.

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Habit #6: Joyful people recognize they are part of something bigger than themselves.

I-forgot-how-bigPeople are funny.

Not you, of course, but people you know. Sociologists tell us that people tend to classify other people in one of three ways: scenery, machinery or people.

“Scenery” is people who are significantly different than us. We acknowledge their existence and recognize that they live real lives, but we don’t see them as three-dimensional. They are are more like photographs — images with whom we have no relationship.

Then there are people who function for us more like machinery. They get things accomplished for us, like lawn care or house-cleaning or bug-extermination. They might even be volunteers in our church, but we don’t see them as people so much as a means to an end. We interact with “machinery” as a matter of necessity, not choice.

Then there are the people with whom we have actual relationships — people we value, whose stories we know, about whom we are genuinely concerned. They are us. And we like us.

Whether we admit it or not, most of us slot most folks into the categories of scenery or machinery. We put very few people in the category of us, which makes those people who see people in the margins as actual people that much more compelling. This is how Jesus saw people. He saw people with demons and people who scammed other people out of their money and people who have been sick for years and a drain on others, as people. Even the crazy ones, he saw as people.

People in need of mercy, yes; but people, nonetheless.

On my my most recent trip to India, we visited a mercy ministry in Bangalore. It was not a particularly well-run place; the people there were a mix of old, disabled, infirm and insane. Because I was fumbling around for a way to be useful, I began looking for what Mother Teresa encouraged us to look for in others: Jesus in his most distressing disguise. As I began to look, I began to see.

I sat down next to a woman who was skin and bones. Half naked and not fully conscious, she had been laid out on a concrete slab with her back side — full of bed sores, covered in flies — exposed to the sun. I don’t know how she was still alive and suspect she didn’t last long after I left.

The direct sun seemed an unmerciful place for someone so fragile, but no one moved this woman and she was certainly not able to move herself. I asked about a place in the shade and was told she needed to stay where she was. I asked about food and was told she couldn’t eat.

What to do, then, when there is nothing to be done?

Helpless in the face of such poverty, I wondered: as a follower of Jesus, what is my responsibility to this woman who seems to have been forgotten by the world? Do I demand justice? Throw her over my shoulder and haul her out of there? Helplessly move on?

Since none of those seemed viable options, I decided to simply notice her. I looked at her. Really looked. This was real poverty, real suffering. I sat down by her side and waved flies from her face (they’d filled her nostrils). I would have suspected that the Word of God would dissolve in the face of this reality but to the contrary, it was the only thing that seemed to make sense. In fact, a word from Isaiah came to mind as I sat there swatting flies and I spoke it aloud over her life: “The Lord called you from the womb. From the body of your mother he named your name … You are honored in the eyes of the Lord. God will be your strength.”

Far from being irrelevant, it seemed the one thing I might want if I were in her place. I think I’d want to know I wasn’t invisible, that I mattered, that in my final moments, the truth blanketed me. For any of that to happen in this moment between this woman and me, my take on the Kingdom had to expand exponentially. To be bigger. To be great. Very quickly, it had to become much bigger than my middle-class existence had come to accept.

In order for me to believe that word was true for a woman whose nostrils were filled with flies, I had to accept that the Kingdom of God includes mysteries I can’t comprehend, and I had to allow it to call me to a holy response that is bigger than my comforts allow.

You are not forgotten. The Lord knows your name. Your life even now has value. The world has failed to treasure your life, but God has not forgotten you.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

And it is much bigger than any one of us can comprehend or carry. We are called to something much bigger than ourselves.

God, forgive me. I forgot how big.

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Habit #5: Joyful people pursue progress, not perfection.

I have a goal. It is to do one regulation push-up. One.

I was inspired to this goal by Olivia Perez-Breland who posted one day on Facebook that she’d accomplished the feat without actually meaning to. Sprogress-not-perfection2he was in the gym doing modified push-ups, when she noticed how easy it had become for her. So after ten or so, she decided to try a regulation push-up and sure enough, she could do it. In fact, she did several.

I thought, well … if she can, I can. Never mind the fact that she’s 20 years younger than me; let’s do this! I started focusing on modified push-ups and made them part of my daily work-out. I kept it up, and over time I noticed I could do more than when I first started. It was getting easier. I made it a goal to be able to do one regulation push-up by the end of the year, and I  worked on that goal for months.

Because I was writing a message at the time on the habits of joyful people — one of which is an ability to focus on progress not perfection — I wanted so badly to make one push-up happen before the Sunday of said message. I wanted to be able to end my message by showing my pueople how a focus on progress (not perfection) yields results. I wanted to be able to tell this story of working toward something for months, then end with the remarkable news that I’d met my goal. “See! I did it! The repetition of a discipline yields results!”

And then, I even fantasized about dropping and giving them one.

All for Jesus, of course.

It didn’t happen.

After months of trying — not even one!  That was months ago. Some time after that, I finally made one push-up. One. And for about a week after I finally accomplished a push-up, I was able to do it whenever I tried. But since then, I’ve somehow backslidden and am on my knees again (I could probably make a whole ‘nuther sermon out of that one sentence).

I may not ever accomplish a series of regulation push-ups, but what I can do today is twenty more modified push-ups than I could do a year ago. Which means that even if I’m not where I want to be, at least I’m not where I was.

Which is the point.

Progress, not perfection, drills into a deeper well of joy.

What places in your spiritual life could you point to and say, “I’m not where I want to be, but at least I’m not where I was”? And what disciplines are helping you get there? In what places are you frustrating yourself by focusing more on perfection than on simply making progress? How would a shift toward making progress help you better understand and embrace the concept of grace? How might it increase your capacity for joy?

(This post was first published on my old blog site, firestones, in November of 2014. I still haven’t returned to an ability to do a regulation push-up.  But I’m making progress …)

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