The Holy Awkward with Pastor Ryan

Why “praying it away” doesn’t cut it (Confessions of a Broken Preacher)

The first one felt like a heart attack.  I was in my second year at UVA.  Picture a large lecture hall filled with

hundreds of students and you clinging to your seat with a headache as tight as a rubber band, tingling hands and a heart racing so fast your chest begins to hurt.  I thought I was gonna pretty much collapse or die in the middle of Intro to Politics 101.

Several blood tests, doctor appointments, medications, pastoral conversations, and late night phone calls later, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.  Contrary to common misconception, this is not the same as the various normal anxious responses to stress, change, etc.  It is a mental illness that many deal with day-to-day as others do with depression, bipolar, and others.

This has nothing to do with me getting nervous before I preach, nor is it about feeling uncomfortable interacting with people at all!  In fact, I find joy in being around lots of people.  The scary part of this thing I live with is that it does not always have a clear, identifiable trigger, but leads my body to react as if it were in constant fear or danger.  For me specifically, it is a fear of losing control over my body and my thoughts.  In its first iterations back in college, it led to many sleepless nights, constant coping with feel-good rom-coms, odd eating habits, and even some concerning weight loss.

I have always been a constant doer.  An extrovert.  A type-A sort of guy.  My Enneagram is a 2, which translates to “Helper.”  That is to say, I worry about people.  I care about people.  I read too much into people’s emotions behind emails or texts.  And with that, I sometimes lose track of me.  This and so much more had built up inside me that year in college to a point where I finally caved.   What had once been a strong animosity towards getting help for something I thought I could figure out on my own had been replaced by a new sort of attitude.  You see, I had associated counseling with shame and the stigma of being viewed by others as “complicated” or “crazy.”

I speak openly and candidly about this experience because I have come to a place of gratitude for the way the idea of counseling was presented to me by my campus minister when I thought I had reached a breaking point.  Deborah and I had met several times around the valley I was wading through, but I remember her being very clear that while faith was very much a part of the moving forward, it did not negate the importance of making informed choices.

The Psalmist acknowledges an understanding of God who created us out of fear and wonder (Psalm 139).  And with that, we have to recognize that we are delicate and susceptible enough to the complex things of this world that may impact us biologically, socially, or emotionally.  My concern, however, is that not all of these conversations around the Church and mental illness end with these thoughts in mind.  And it begs the serious question as to how we as the Church are or are not creating space where individuals or families facing mental illness can have support without a fear of being problematized.  The fear of being belittled or made to feel inadequate because one has a “lack of faith” or has lost in a conflict of “spiritual warfare.”

I don’t like to rain on one’s parade, but most Christian movies released in the last several years fall short of navigating such human realities without spinning them through a rose-colored lens, not to mention poor production value and troubling theology.  I like to call this the War Room heresy because I cannot tell you how many times someone has told me to lean into my faith and hold out with prayer in the midst of my most desperate trials with this anxiety disorder.  In all honesty, the last thing I wanted to do during a severe panic attack was center myself in stillness and pray.  I wanted to curl up in a ball in my bed with the lights off or stand in a steaming hot shower letting the water hit my face.  In conversations with some, it felt as if they saw my anxiety as a demon possessing me and that my faith was a measurable thing.  I did not like it.  I felt attacked when some would say I needed to be more true to the faith inside of me.

A couple of Sundays ago, I talked about the importance of letting our stories inform our ministries.  In other words, how can our various life experiences shape our response to God’s call in our lives or how we minister to others?  And so, I have been pondering lately through my own story what would be some helpful conversation points when helping the Church grow in its approach to conversations around mental illness:

  • Don’t present faith as the bandaid, but instead, the affirmation that nurtures choice and decision.  The Church really should avoid a “praying it away” “read your Bible more” attitude when it comes to mental illness.  This can often enhance the severity of the situation because it carries a patronizing or legalistic tone that says we are not doing enough.  God relates to us on this journey in unique ways that we sew together with God.  Leave room for the relational character of God to enter in and instead of telling them what they need to fix, remind them that we are called to lament just as much as we are called to praise.  In that lamenting, you might encourage them to seek resources that are available to them.   
  • Counseling and therapy resources are enriching integrations of faith and appropriate treatment.  The United Methodist Church has repeatedly adopted a resolution that states the following: We believe that faithful Christians are called to be in ministry to individuals and their families challenged by disorders causing disturbances of thinking, feeling and acting categorized as “mental illness.” We acknowledge that throughout history and today, our ministries in this area have been hampered by lack of knowledge, fear and misunderstanding. Even so, we believe that those so challenged, their families and their communities are to be embraced by the church in its ministry of compassion and love.  Professional help can be a means of grace in the way it allows individuals to receive guidance without having to put on mask.
  • Be a visible reminder of God’s grace and presence yourself rather than attempting to pinpoint what God is or is not doing.  “God is in control” (while one might think it sounds reassuring) carries a lot of theological problems. The last thing you want to say to someone who has hit a breaking point in their struggles with mental illness is this phrase, especially in times where he or she might feel helpless.  We have a God who desires a relationship with us and yet who also gives us the creative gift to act and to choose.  In other words, don’t attempt to rationalize mental illness as part of God’s plan.  The grace you are extending by listening, empathizing and encouraging is so much more important than trying to put a flag on where God is in the situation; for the grace you display is a window into God’s providence and dwelling within the space of uncertainty. 
  • Shift Church culture away from one of hesitancy towards one of understanding.  A posture of hesitancy is easy to adopt when there is a lack of knowledge or awareness a part from what media and culture have wired us to assume.  Imagine if a student joined a youth group and shared that they had chronic bouts with depression only to discover that the group was taken aback or that the youth leader had no idea how to respond.  Foster opportunities where these discussions can be had, be it a book study, a conversation group, or within the context of a sermon series.
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When the church stifles its prophetic call.

If buzzwords and phrases these days like “peaceful protest,” “March on…” or “social justice” turn you off, this post will no doubt further the discomfort that typically leads you to remove yourself from reality.  But let’s be honest, these are no different than speaking truth in love, denouncing the forces of wickedness in our world, and the entire tenets of Matthew 25 (the bit about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.)

For the first time in a while since I have been in full time ministry, Sunday, August 13th was a morning where the Holy Spirit overwhelmed me with conviction and the raw grief festering inside of me.  I was angry, disappointed, and afraid.  If you ask any pastor about how fragile the pulpit can be, they will share with you something more or less along the same lines as what I felt.

One of the many actions our United Methodist bishops task us with as pastors is to speak boldly and prophetically.  And let’s be clear, this does not mean speaking for the sake of partisanship or with the intent of buying another vote for the values and beliefs pastors do or do not share with their congregants. I admire the late rabbi, Abraham Heschel when he suggested that

 “The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears.  He experiences moments that defy our understanding.  He is neither “a singing saint” nor “a moralizing poet,” but an assaulter of the mind.  Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends.”  

Pastors are called with the lofty task of speaking the extra octave, the truths of God into a broken world.  We lead a life of inviting the complacent to witness rather than to sit by.  Last weekend, I preached on just how critical it is as disciples to venture out of the boat to live out the gospel the way Christ intended it.  And much of that has to do with our constant need to re-examine who we are as “church.”  To put it bluntly, if we are settled, we are missing the mark.

The always witty and always snarky Tina Fey went on Saturday Night Live last week and cast light, with a mouthful of sheet cake, on the incessant attitude of those who resist without reacting.  There is one kind of resisting that I personally feel lacks chutzpah.  The social media trolls who enjoy a good stirring of the pot and find pleasure in never ending paragraph responses that often have no resolve.  Granted, there are exceptions when these can be productive and helpful, but when does it come across simply as avoidance?  And what Tina Fey and others reveal is just how sobering the question is: “What will it take for the Church to react?”

I have been waiting to reflect on the events in Charlottesville, Durham, and elsewhere because I am genuinely discouraged.  I am discouraged when I hear about or see churches that don’t take initiative and I am discouraged when some choose to use Church as an escape from it all.  My heart has been filled with lament these past couple weeks for a variety of reasons:

 I lament as a graduate of two schools where the soil of education and community became a ground for bigotry and hatred.

I lament the trepidation that has confronted faith leaders from living into their call to speak prophetically.

I lament for those who fail to see that these events are not multi sided.

I lament as a white man, brought up in privilege and achievement, for those who have been dealt the brunt of racism as a consequence of white supremacy.

One of the most harmful things I believe you could say to a pastor is “move on” or “get over it.”  Why?  Because the entire gospel life pivots around reclaiming our salvation story in the here and now.  I taught my confirmation students this year the value in approaching Scripture with an open mind and open heart, not limiting themselves to a reading that implies God’s Word is written and done with.  Part of that informs our ability to allow God’s Word to speak not solely in ancient battles between empires, but the conflicts of race, gender, violence, and sexuality that throttle the Church today.

In an effort to press us forward in response to events like Charlottesville, I share some things that can be helpful to you as you seek to be the Church in the midst of such hate:

Don’t stifle our prophetic witness.  This is a collective challenge we share as the Body of Christ.  It’s not just the pastors that have this task.  Preaching professor and writer of Preaching as Testimony, Anna Carter Florence writes: “Jesus himself claimed the freedom of speaking the truth he saw and lived…He embodied for us the essence of proclamation and the essence of Christian faith–which is to speak the truth we have seen and experienced in our own way, no matter what comes.”  When we refuse to name things that occupy our communities, our country, and our world, we are doing a disservice to those who are suffering or who are losing their lives for the sake of what is good and right.

Allow the Psalms to speak into your life. What I’m saying in a nutshell, here, is to give yourself the freedom to lament.  An extension of our faith is crying out to God in the face of uncertainty or hurt.  Don’t treat the Church as a place of shelter from the storms outside of it.  The Church is a reflection of Christ and therefore, is a site where our wounds can be healed and redeemed.

Read and enter dialogue: Before you spout off things like “reverse racism,” the “race card,” or before you decry the Black Lives Matter movement as a hate group, please read the sources!    Assumptions do no one any good.  The New Jim Crow and Racism without Racists are two great starting points that I would recommend.  Read these books with others.  Ask questions.  Be informed.  Ask someone who is directly impacted instead of seeing their situation as exaggeration.

Ask, “What do I idolize? History is, sadly, written when it comes to the conversations at hand around racism, white supremacy, and bigotry; however, Scripture is always a living Word.  So when some decry the removal of statues as an erasing of history or a denial of their heritage, they miss the point.  The Confederate statue debacle raises a genuine question around what we choose to idolize.  Their removal is not about creating a new problem.  It’s about redeeming the wounds already in existence because of a persistent clash of idols.  Duke Chapel was a place where I worshiped.  The space where I graduated to a sermon given by a black woman.  A site committed to serving a student body of wide and diverse religious and racial backgrounds.  A place where among noted leaders in Church history stood Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The Dean of Duke Chapel, Luke Powery, remarked on the recent decision to remove this statue:

     “I looked at the empty space and couple of things came to mind,” Powery said. “I saw it as a hole, or a void. But it is a hole that in many ways represents a hole in the heart of the United States and the ongoing struggles of racism, hatred and bigotry – all the things we’re seeing in our streets. We haven’t come as far as perhaps we thought we had come as a nation.”

Is moving a statue that signifies hatred and a racist ideology to a museum or archive truly breaking your heart when it can serve as a means of helping us unlearn the past?

Lastly, we all should ask “What’s our excuse for not reacting?”  If claiming color-blindness has been your excuse for avoidance, you have bought into a false illusion that on the surface sounds all fluffy and nice, but actually denies our present (yes, present!) reality even further.  To say you “don’t see color” negates Jesus’ ministry entirely for the sake of living in ignorance to difference.  The gospel and early church thrived in communities of difference with the understanding that the Body of  Christ is not ours to define.  To not react is to refuse accepting there is a systemic problem at hand.

Lord, may we continue to strive to be your hands and feet in a world that tries to paint over reality with narratives that are not of You.  Grant that we may lead boldly, beginning with humble confession and moving on towards faithful witness.  Amen.

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