Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Come, Come, Whoever You Are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.
~ Jalaluddin Rumi
It’s been that kind of summer all around us, hasn’t it? Mentally exhausting, with new things to be exasperated about on an almost hourly basis. I’ve been reflecting on how we might have lost that momentum and enthusiasm from the spring. When states and cities were first beginning their lockdowns, and when our church first began its own self-quarantine, there was a strong sense of coming together. The data confirm it. As we transitioned our church activities to a digital space, there was a surge in website traffic, email clicks, and attendance in online worship. We received frequent check-in calls from our congregational care team. And “out there” in the wider world, my Facebook feed was full of stories and articles about how we can learn from this pandemic and change our society for the better. We would not go back to the way things were, we said. Air pollution was down. Society hit the brakes and had a little Sabbath time. We took care of our neighbors, and governments stepped in to help the newly unemployed. It seemed that as trying as the times were, we might manage to pull together and get through it, collectively. There was hope for a better world on the other side.
But it wasn’t to last. The pandemic quickly devolved into a political issue, and now the lockdowns have mostly ended, even as the virus continues to claim lives. The summer has been a lot of two steps forward, three steps back. Most of us are back to business as usual, only now there’s an added financial strain on top of it.
September marks two things that are near and dear to my heart. First, we are entering the Season of Creation in our church year. Second, it is Suicide Prevention Awareness month. But those two things seem out of place right now with everything else that’s going on.
I find myself fatigued and barely able to summon the strength to be concerned for the environment or my own mental health because of everything else that we are lamenting in the world. We’re witnessing in real time Black men and women being murdered by police, unprecedented government corruption, conspiracy theories becoming mainstream, brothers and sisters being pitted against each other like pawns in a dystopian chess game, and an election under attack. I don’t think I can remember such a confluence of crises happening in such a short period. It is too much, and it honestly feels like all our efforts at positive growth and change aren’t even worth it.
This pandemic was caused by a natural world out of balance, by human infringement upon the natural world, and ultimately, by our lack of self-awareness. Creation has also been groaning louder than ever. We’ve seen giant swarms of locusts from East Africa to India, 500-year floods in Europe, wildfires reducing entire California communities and forests to ash, over 40% of Iowa corn and soybeans flattened by a 140 mph wind storm, and the hottest temperature ever recorded north of the Arctic Circle (over 100ᵒ F). Again, it’s all too much, and I find my care for Creation lacking these days.
I’m not sure how to describe my internal experience of all this. It feels like grief, and despair. I feel grief for the lost lives and the unravelling of the social fabric in this country. I find it hard to avoid a creeping sense of existential dread. And I know a lot of you are feeling the same and more so. Amidst the chaos, it’s hard to resist the urge to withdraw. Especially when social distancing makes it too easy to isolate altogether.
Multiple lines of evidence indicate that the pandemic, social unrest, and climate crisis are having profound psychological effects, which will probably persist for months if not years to come. Studies show that we are now in a period of great distress, anxiety, fear of contagion, depression, insomnia, chronic stress, substance abuse, and other mental health disorders in the general population. Suicidal ideation is elevated, with a rate twice as high as last year (the actual number of suicides this year is not yet known, but experts are predicting a tsunami). One medical examiner recently predicted that 2020 is on pace to be the worst year for suicides in the Black community ever. The resulting trauma from these crises has been and will continue to be experienced disproportionately by people of color, older adults, children, immigrants, those with disabilities, and those with preexisting medical conditions.
Sorry for all the doom and gloom. I bring it up simply because I have a tendency to want to put on a happy face, especially whenever I’m interacting with my church family. I, like many of us, suffer from “Happy Christian Syndrome” – the conviction that as a Christian, I am not supposed to show the world that I am unhappy, for various reasons. Sunday’s always comin’, after all. And our individualistic, achievement-oriented culture instills in us the notion that no one has time for our weakness, so we are better off going it alone and suppressing it.
Yet this is exactly what we need to avoid doing. We cannot distance ourselves emotionally from others, even while we are social distancing. If I am not expressing myself authentically, I feel even worse, which in turn worsens my despair and negative coping behaviors. Not only is it okay to feel and own my negative thoughts and emotions, it’s healthy. Faith is strengthened not by relying on that alone to solve my problems, but by recognizing the pain points that need my attention.
“The Church,” wrote Martin Luther, “is the inn and the infirmary for those who are sick and in need of being made well.” Luther’s image of the Church as a hospital reminds us who we are – a community of vulnerable people in need of help; we are a community of healing. At the same time vulnerable and healed, we are freed for a life of receiving and giving help. In the mutual bearing of burdens, we learn to be people who are willing to ask for healing and provide it. If we are to live into our identity as resurrection people, we have to do the work. We have to get into the mess as Jesus did.
Our faith communities can be a place to talk openly about our pain, to provide resources, and to offer care and support for all of us who are touched by despair. Over the last few months I’ve been working diligently as part of our synod’s Mental Health Ministry and the Suicide Prevention Ministry to develop mental health resources for our faith communities. Though our synod ministries still have a lot of work to do before we fully launch our main resource offerings, be encouraged that this church is making good progress as a pioneer in promoting mental health awareness and education.
We recently held a webinar on self-care best practices (click for video and/or slides). I’ll quickly share some takeaways here:
- Self-awareness and appraisal are key components to caring for ourselves. If you’re unsure about your current emotional state, you can take a free online mental health screening at https://www.helpyourselfhelpothers.org/.
- The top three things that can help fight stress and anxiety are social support, exercise, and adequate sleep. Make these things a priority if you don’t already.
- Spend just three minutes a day doing mindful breathing. That is, listen to and feel your breath while paying attention to nothing else. Make your exhale longer than your inhale – in for 5 seconds, out for 7. You’ll be surprised what this short exercise can do for your day. You can do it at a specific time or as needed.
- No amount of self-care will do any good unless an effort is made to address the underlying issues. So if I’m depressed, drinking, or having emotional outbursts, I need to consult with a qualified professional and examine why I am having such reactions, which will inform my strategies to address them.
- Make a list of the things you can control, and a list of things you cannot control. For example, “I cannot control whether people wear masks,” vs. “I can control how much time I spend scrolling on social media and news sites.” Ask yourself, what if anything, can you do right now to address your fears? What is within your immediate grasp that you can do?
- Mind, body, and spirit are interconnected. Treat your mental health just like you would your physical health. If you are sick, you go to a doctor, right?
Over the past months, this church community has spoken out against racial injustice, held memorials, and erected banners to commemorate victims of racism. We have repurposed our space and resources to better help our brothers and sisters on the margins. We have worked with our Mercy Church partners to provide food, handwashing stations, mobile showers, masks, porta potties, and a place to rest, and we have done so while keeping our building and grounds in good shape. Going forward this month, we are beginning weekly prayer services Wednesday evenings on Zoom, which will give us an opportunity to refill our cups through lament as well as praise and encouragement.
I implore any of you who are experiencing anguish, suicidal thoughts, addiction, or any kind of emotional pain, to reach out for help. Talk to someone. Don’t bear your pain by yourself. There is no shame in asking for help. Indeed, when life’s difficulties and disappointments threaten to overwhelm us, that is when we most need to talk with others. Likewise, when we sense that something is seriously amiss in a friend or family member, we need to trust our instincts and lean into our own discomfort by reaching out. We are called to be our brother’s or sister’s keeper. We are called to walk beside our friends with courage and without judgment. We may want to shy away because we feel unprepared to help, yet our responsibility is to listen, to encourage the person to talk, and to help them find appropriate help.
Admittedly, we fall short of this, and we have especially fallen short of keeping everyone in our community connected during this most difficult time. Unfortunately, it was never going to be perfect. I am imperfect. You are imperfect. Our shared community is imperfect. Not only that, but we have broken our commitments, to ourselves and others, time and time again. And that is okay! We can always start anew and try again.
That we often fall short of our own ideals is almost the point. It is in the continual striving that we learn to live into our faith as individuals and communities. It is in the acknowledgement of imperfection and vulnerability that we find our calling to remain to put forth the effort to attain, not perfection, but the better versions of ourselves that are rooted in healing, compassion, mercy, and grace.
In grace, we know that simply acknowledging it is not enough. We must address our vulnerabilities, the roots of our fear, and honestly face our reluctance to counter the narratives that hold us down. This requires a kind of death of self, and this is where God meets us. If we tend our own garden of truth, God will help us through it, and ultimately God will reveal opportunities to us that we never could have imagined while we were stuck in that place. If we want to bear good fruit, we need to tend to the plant. We need allow the gardener to do what he will do with us. The gardener will sustain us through all of life’s endless challenges. I know that I can’t do it alone. I have to look outside of myself.
Though we have broken our commitment to ourselves and others countless times, God repeatedly welcomes us, and invites us, just as we are, admittedly imperfect, to continue striving, as individuals and as a community. The joy is not in the product but in the work. And there is much work to do.
For discussion: How are you taking care of yourself? Do you need anything?