If you’ve seen anything about the metaverse or virtual reality, you know there are dark places. But as the church, this doesn’t mean we should run...
Mental Health & Faith: Giving Space For the Mind to Heal
Earlier this month, I awoke to a beautiful fresh snowfall in Tucson, AZ. Rarely do these desert hills see this kind of weather… only 4 other times in 40 years! Being from Buffalo, Boston,
Earlier this month, I awoke to a beautiful fresh snowfall in Tucson, AZ. Rarely do these desert hills see this kind of weather… only 4 other times in 40 years! Being from Buffalo, Boston, and now Boulder, I rather like the snow. But it definitely obscured my view that day and made driving to the top of Mt. Lemmon at over 9,000 feet elevation impossible. I turned around somewhere near 8,000, as I sensed I was losing traction and saw much heftier cars than mine not faring well.
But I loved taking pictures of this beautiful weather, like this view above, from my hotel room that morning.
Sometimes real and unexpected clouds obscure the view.
We know that those mountains are up ahead, but we can’t quite make them out. We wouldn’t want to be driving. We’re tentative; unsure.
Sometimes the clouds that obscure our view are internal in nature… we see them in our mind’s eye, and we aren’t even sure the difference. The weather report says it’s sunny, but everything we see is cloudy. We can’t quite make out what’s ahead, we for sure don't want to be driving. We’re tentative; unsure.
One dimension of the human soul that is often overlooked is this: the body. But we are ending that season of minimalistic thinking. Our soul encompasses and integrated all the dimensions of personhood—those things with uniquely make us, well, us. What makes you, you.
This includes the body!
Our soul is not a simple inert toggle switch that is either off or on, saved or unsaved, like a Jesus-bar-code bumper sticker that gets scanned at the Pearly Gates so that, BEEP!, and you’re “in”.
Rather, this beautiful powerful creation in God’s very image the human soul, or the human person — integrates and enlivens all of who we are. The entire self. Including the body.
I’ve been learning much about the physical dimension of the spiritual life from a variety of authors over the years… and recently have been learning more about the unfolding work around how the body holds trauma and can be a vital key to unlocking deep healing. We’ll save all that for another post in the future!
For today, I want to begin a conversation on the massive topic of mental health. Not in my lifetime has this been a more pressing, urgent, and public conversation.
Admittedly, it has been very difficult for those in the church to discuss and address dimensions of mental health. We have minimized, ignored, and sometimes caused unintentional but grave harm to those who were suffering, as we gave 3-cent answers to million-dollar questions.
So here, I hope to outline a few key points that may provide helpful perspective as this priority is emerging rapidly for the church. We want to be ready and able to engage these conversations with wisdom, empathy, grace, and hope.
Mental health is a variant of overall or general health, which is a topic we are quite used to. Our appendix can get infected, and we need immediate surgery or we will die. Urgent, but not serious if diagnosed correctly and treated decisively. We tear a rotator cuff in our shoulder. We can have some set of cells call mutiny and become self-destructive as cancers or auto-immune disease or worse.
Disease, and the path of the progression of that disease “pathology”, involves something not functioning the way it’s “supposed” to be.
Even aging is a slow deterioration of the way things are supposed to be. Mysteriously, cells stop replicating as they once did. If they kept regenerating as they did when we were children, we could live forever! But we don’t. The system is in decline.
I imagine this is why we rail against death and decline. We hate seeing ourselves and our loved ones fade away. Become less. There's a big part of us that shouts angrily: THIS IS NOT THE WAY ITS SUPPOSED TO BE! And yet it is. Disease wracks our bodies, including our brains. Like any other organ, it can get sick.
The brain functions in so very many ways... one fun way I learned to think about it is to imagine it as a huge building with three core teams driving the operations of a business. It’s a gross oversimplification, but it highlights a few key systems at work:
On the top floor, with perspective gained from the view… and time and space to plan, build relationships, create strategic initiatives, and evaluate progress towards goals, is the Executive Team.
Throughout the Building are various Security and Operations Teams... everything from the elevators and doors, the fire alarms and the sprinkler system and security cameras always at work to protect the structure from harm.
Then there's the Maintenance Crew in the basement. They keep the heat at the right temperature, the pluming working, and the electricity going. You'll only notice they're there when something has gone wrong, and that's actually the way they prefer it.
At that middle-layer, constant monitoring is taking place... always scanning for threat anywhere in the building. The security system cameras are recording everything. Everything.
Author and neuro-theologian Jim Wilder defines emotional and/or physical trauma as experiencing something difficult while feeling alone in it. Whether sexual violence, car wrecks, betrayal or abandonment, or something far more dramatic in times of war or worse -- the critical piece is that one who suffers trauma through the incident had the experience of feeling alone in it. They are often isolated and trapped by their physical and/or psychological circumstances.
This traumatic incident can short-circuit the security footage and block our access to those memories. The cameras were still running, the video exists, but access has been blocked. We can no longer "see" what hurt us. We literally do not remember. This is actually a massive gift! Denial and repression keep us functioning through incredibly difficult times. But thankfully sometimes healing begins to beckon, and we move towards facing things we have long ago lost words or access to. The painful but life-giving process of healing can be embraced.
Much has been written in psychological environments lately about the difference between a "fixed" mindset and a "growth" mindset. And this is good progress for us, since research suggests that core personality features we think of as inherent and immovable can and do shift over time. This supercomputer of creative, hyper-aware, linguistic, relational ball that is precariously perched above our shoulders is only being used at most 8 - 12 % of the time. Are you even kidding me?? That is fascinating! And gives me hope.
When things go wrong with the mechanical functioning of the brain, and they do go wrong, just like any other organ... we can become very very sick. We may not look any different on the outside, but clouds may have begun to distort our vision from the inside. We lose our way; we can't see.
When we speak of mental health, we enter the realm of the mind. It relates to the brain but is entirely different. To those who asked to pick his brain on a topic, Dallas Willard would jokingly reply: "If you want to pick my brain, you'll only get blood!" If you wanted to know what he thought about a topic, then you'd need to ask a question. Knowledge, wisdom, understanding is the realm of the mind. The mind is where we hold a sense of purpose, build relationships, consider strategic options, and make meaning of our circumstances. Those things are informed, and even controlled by the brain, but also function separately from it.
Emotional trauma of any kind can show us this relationship.
With physical trauma, we see repair to the bones, skin, and vital organs that might happen at a trauma center in a hospital. We love television shows, and the personal stories we carry, where well-trained, creative, and skilled professionals stituch us back together and unthinkable recovery becomes possible, even normal. (enjoy this fabulous and important movie, Something the Lord Made)
The gospel of Mark records an interesting account of Jesus healing a man of blindness. You may remember it from Mark 8, because it appears Jesus needs a second try to get the healing to "work". The first laying on of Jesus' hands may have restored the mechanics of sight. Rods and cones began firing correctly, an optic nerve sprang back into action, the retina re-attached... the cornea became clear... who knows what actually happened?!? But the result was immediate: the man could now see indistinct, blurry images.
They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
While Mark doesn’t reveal this detail, it is possible that this man had been blind from birth. If so, he would have never developed in early childhood the parts of understanding -- the mind -- that would associate meaning with the images that his newly restored eyes could now see.
And this is the power of our Lord and Savior. The one who has conquered death. Jesus asks him to further diagnose the situation, "do you see anything" and
Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
It may well be that this illustrates Jesus miraculously healing not only the mechanics of blindness, but also his miraculous healing of this man's understanding. Healing of his mind.
Just like the rest of our selves, God can certainly heal in an instant. We could go to God alone every time we have a broken bone, or our appendix bursts, or we are diagnosed with diabetes, or become nearsighted. We could, but we don't. Instead, we rightly pray for God to guide those physicians, lead us to a swift and accurate diagnosis, and yes we of course pray for healing.
And, we immediately put pins and plates into that bone, remove the appendix, support the body with insulin, and get our "cheaters" so we can read. We buy them in bulk at Costco.
We would never consider these actions a lack of faith or willpower, because those actions do NOT show a lack of faith or willpower. They show wisdom and faith. In fact, we would consider it a cult-like group that did not take those actions.
Yet mental health continues to be an area where all too often the church insists that God will directly heal you, and that if you don't experience that healing it means you don't have enough faith or aren't trying hard enough.
THIS IS NOT THE WAY IT SHOULD BE.
We can do better. The realm of healing the mind is a relatively new frontier, and important discoveries are happening as we understand more about the relationship between brain and mind. There's many forms of therapy that are yet being refined and explored. But the fact is we are trying. Breakthroughs and discoveries and advances are happening all the time.
The people of Jesus have an unprecedented opportunity right now to meet the suffering in this world with presence, hope, curiosity, and prayer.
For all the things we still do not know, and I for certain do not know, perhaps we can agree together that:
Mental health is a reality, often invisible to outsiders and sometimes invisible to those who are struggling
A global pandemic, unstable economics, extended isolation, civic unrest, political divides, and untold human suffering have created a severe and worsening situation for mental health. This is true for us globally, in our communities, with the people next door, with the family member downstairs, and yes even in the mirror.
God can heal/restore/hold space with us in our pain. This week more than any... we remember that we serve a God who is acquainted with suffering; yet who defeated death.
While God can transcend time and space for super-natural healings of many kinds, God's pattern for healing -- and growth -- is more often seen in slow and steady "natural" ways. We still credit His good care and involvement as we seek medical help. And we still pray for supernatural healing. This is beautiful and good.
The church needs to wake up to this topic. To expand empathy. To become willing to learn. To enter conversations. To hold space for suffering and yet hold space for hope.
We can have better conversations about the clouds that obscure our view from within, and move towards compassion, healing, and growth.
I hope to bring more light to this topic and be able to offer better practical helps in the future. For now, it’s vital that we begin the conversation and extend our awareness and relational network to include those gifted, trained, professionals who can truly journey with us as healers in the realm of mental health.
Reflect today on your personal experience with the subject of mental health:
What has shaped your current level of awareness?
What can you do to learn more?
By all means, guard your heart. It is the wellspring of life.
I want to leave you with an assortment of sources that have been super helpful to me over this past year
What resources have been helpful to you? I have barely scratched the surface of this enormous topic. Please add your comments below!