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The Journey: the UCC Mental Health Network Blog

Welcome to the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network (UCC MHN) blog, The Journey. Our weekly posts will explore mental health and addiction through the lens of our Christian faith. We will write about how our personal experiences affect our lives and how our spirituality supports our journey. Everyone who is living with a mental health or addiction disorder, or has a loved one who is affected by a mental health challenge or addiction, is on a journey. Together we can connect with each other and share some ways to travel the path of hope and wholeness.

Pentecost by Rachael Keefe


written by Rachael Keefe

… the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. John 14:26

I like stories of all kinds. I’m an avid reader of a variety of genres, though I have a particular fondness of urban fantasy. There’s something wonderful about the temporary escape from reality a good novel or short story can provide. My imagination is sparked and I am transported somewhere else. I do best when I have a daily dose of fiction. However, I have recently been captivated by the ways in which we tell our faith stories. These are often stories laden with more spiritual truth than factual history, and that’s okay. When told well, these stories also ignite my imagination and I am transported to a place of hope and healing.

Unfortunately, the stories of our faith often get repeated in ways that bring more harm. In the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month, I am acutely aware of how so many of us have been harmed by the telling of faith stories. I think of the times I’ve been told, “Everything happens according to God’s will.” Usually, these words were uttered after I had shared something about the trauma of my early life. I suspect the people who say this kind of thing think they are offering comfort. They might also be coming from a theological place that begins with the idea that all of humanity was condemned by the actions of Adam and Eve.

If the faith that has been handed onto you includes the idea that we all need to be saved, redeemed from the ancient “fall of humanity,” then the concept of everything happening according to God’s will might be comforting. Because you might believe that God organizes everything to get us to place where we will choose God rather than staying in our condemned state. Yet, when you really take a close look at this, this is not a faith story that leads to hope and healing so much as it is a story that leads to fear and despair. More often than not, this perspective keeps one from ever believing that they are good enough for God to love.

There’s another way to tell this same story that leads to a healthier, more hopeful place. If we tell this story as a way to show and affirm that God created everything and declared it good, then it’s easier to get to a place that begins in God’s love. Adam and Eve weren’t villains who doomed the entire human race to life without God’s immediate presence. Instead, they are representatives of humanity and display our capacity to choose what God would rather we do not. God doesn’t abandon us, but life can be complicated when we (or those around us) choose other than what God desires for us. Then Jesus becomes a way to bring more love into the world, to save us from our own self-destruction, rather than a means of saving souls. 

We can tell our faith stories in ways that highlight condemnation and failing or in ways that demonstrate God’s steadfast love that continues through all human struggle. I prefer the latter. If I begin and end with the premise that God’s love endures through all things, then anything horrible is not God’s doing. God is present in the midst of pain and suffer, trauma and tragedy, but God doesn’t send these things into our lives – not to test us, teach us, or lead us onto a certain path.

Consequently, no illness of body, mind, or spirit is inflicted on us by God. The ancient people believed that these things were punishment for sin, theirs or their parents’. But they didn’t know anything about genetics or germs or weather patterns or much else. Now we do. The ways in which we become unwell aren’t God’s doing. God also does not abandon us when we are ill, even if it feels that way. 

Jesus’ life and ministry were all about healing and hope and restoring people to community. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us, to remind us of God’s love for us and that we are to follow Jesus in the path of loving ourselves and others with the same love. As we listen to the stories of this Pentecost season, maybe we can hear them and tell them in new ways. Maybe we can begin to tell our stories of faith in ways that emphasize God’s great love for the whole of creation. Maybe we can stop using faith stories to blame those who suffer from mental or physical illness for being ill. Maybe we can begin to shape the telling of our stories in ways that promote wholeness, healing, hope, and God’s love for all people, including you and me. How better to celebrate the movements of the Spirit than to embrace Love?
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author, and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com.

One way to reduce stigma and isolation by breaking the silence! - by Alan Johnson

“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” Ps. 32:3

I am convinced that offering a spiritual support for mental health in our congregations is one of the essential components of a mental health ministry.  I believe this is true because one the major hurdles that we all experience when we come across mental health concerns is the stigma that is carried by so many people who are affected.  And a common experience as a result is isolation. Who can I tell about my mental illness who is not going to judge me?  Who is not going to shun me?  Even my internal stigma can be upsetting!  My silence is killing me!

So much of the stigma which is directed toward people who have a psychological disorder comes because people simply are afraid.  They just don't understand what is going on.  And so many of the news reports where there is an issue of mental illness, the account mentions violence. This feeds the fear.

No wonder people then withdraw themselves, or feel as they are the contemporary leper.  While people who are living with and managing their mental illness do not show signs of this condition, many feel and think that they are not “normal” like so many others.  But you have probably heard that the only “normal” in a household is the dial on the washing machine.

It was a result of experiencing this isolation of people I had come to know, a couple of us starting a spiritual support for mental health in the church we attended.  We wanted to create a space that was safe and sacred where people could tell portions of their own stories, the stories of their mental illness or of their stories of being affected by mental illness by their loved ones.

Having attended 12 step meetings, I appreciated the confidentiality and safety of speaking of the pain, brokenness, loss, and grief as well as the joy, happiness, and wholeness which comes through recovery.  What about a similar context where mental illness can be the subject?

There is a model for a Spiritual Support Group for Mental Health which is being used in my area in Boulder, CO.  It is held in a Congregational (UCC) and a Lutheran church, a Jewish synagogue, and a Catholic Church.  The specific outline and design of this group, along with the Guidelines are available  here (It's from the "Becoming a Wise Congregation" Congregational Toolkits right here on our website)

Here are three testimonies of those who have attended the Spiritual Support Group for Mental
  • For me, this was the first time to say in front of others, that I suffered from depression.   Thank you for the spiritual support group.  ---Maria
  • I was involved in a support group for those touched by bipolar illness for over 8 years.  I found a strong sense of community and it helped me through some very difficult times.  The spiritual support group helps ground me, makes me realize that there is Someone outside of myself who loves me unconditionally.  The rituals of the group, the inspirational reading all help me to center myself and provide a depth of experience I did not have before. ---Anne
  • Listening, no judgment, empathy and sympathy.  Also and perhaps more importantly, a structured group that has boundaries for myself and my co-attendees creating a safe, professional and reliable environment.  ---Jen
It is in the safe and sacred space of a spiritual support group that the power of the personal story can be shared and heard.  There is affirmation and confirmation that these experiences are widely shared.  Scratch  the surface of almost anyone's life and there is some story about a mental health condition. And if enough of us were courageous enough and found it safe enough to tell the story, the stigma and the isolation would be greatly reduced.  
Alan Johnson is a mental health advocate who served on the national United Church Board of Homeland Ministries, 1979-1995, retired as chaplain at The Children’s Hospital, Denver, and serves as chair of the UCC Mental Health Network board of directors.