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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.

Our God is an Awesome God by Karl Shallowhorn


written by Karl Shallowhorn

“But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. 
They will soar on wings like eagles; 
they will run and not grow weary, 
they will walk and not be faint..”
Isaiah 40:31

I was listening to an episode of NPR’s “This American Life.” One of the segments featured a college admissions director who was sharing about parents who have attempted to imitate their children by writing emails and essays. One of the points he mentioned was that in many cases he could tell that it was a parent simply by the language that was used. One word in particular was “awesome.”

Now, as a parent and someone in middle-age, I must confess that I do use that word. A lot. Sometimes I just can’t help myself. I mean, it just comes off the tongue so easily. And there are times when it’s convenient; like it’s an easy way to speak about how excited I am.

But what about when I’m not doing so well. Are things awesome then? Usually not. These are times when I struggle just to make sense of just what the heck is going on. Where is God in these moments? Where was God when I was catatonic in my dormitory room. Or where was our Creator when I was out of control so many times in a manic state? 

Guess what? God was there. God helped me through those extreme peaks and valleys. It wasn’t that God wasn’t present, it was simply that due to my impaired state I was unable to feel God’s presence. It is in those dark moments when there seems like there are no apparent solutions. These are the times when people often give up hope. 

I can, however attest that God, in fact, is present during these periods. Otherwise how could I, someone who has been so incredibly impaired by my bipolar disorder, get through the many years of confusion and despair I’ve had. It wasn’t by my own doing. Mind you, I did have to put forth much effort however some of these things are inexplicable in human terms.

This is how I can say our God is an awesome God. How else can I explain my recovery? Over the years I have developed a belief system that tells me that I can do far more than I believed possible with the help of an infinitely powerful God. 

One example is when last year I participated in a local cycling cancer fundraiser called the Ride for Roswell. I had just turned 55 and decided to take on the 102-mile “Century Ride.” I had never attempted anything like this before (although I did run two marathons many years ago). It was on my bucket list.

I trained all summer in preparation for the event. That day, however, things didn’t go as I had originally planned. I was doing well but when I got to around the 75-80 mile mark I began to get cramping in my upper left quadriceps muscle. To add insult to injury, my left foot kept slipping out of the cleat. It was worn out. 

With about 12 miles to go I began to cramp up severely. My riding partner Mark asked if I wanted to stop and get picked up by the “SAG” relief vehicle. I responded, “No, I want to finish.” So, I rode on. I will never forget the experience of completing the final mile of the ride. My legs were sore and my arms were extremely tired from having been on the bike for nearly six hours. It was during this time that I prayed. I looked at the cross tattoo I have on my inner forearm. And I thought about my dear mother-in-law who was bravely battling her cancer diagnosis. It took everything I had to finish.

And finish I did. By doing so, it reinforced how, when faced with an insurmountable challenge, it is possible to face it and overcome it. This is what makes God so awesome. God can do for us what we are not capable of doing for ourselves.

I’m going to keep using that word, awesome, no matter what.
Karl Shallowhorn is the Education Program Coordinator at the Community Health Center of Buffalo. Karl is a New York State Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor and also serves on the Board of Directors for the UCC Mental Health Network, the Mental Health Association in New York State, and the Mental Health Association of Erie County. He is also a contributing writer and blogger for BP magazine as well as for The Mighty. Karl is a 30-plus year member of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s-El Nuevo Camino UCC in Buffalo, NY.

Broken and Hopeful by Bob Griggs


written by Bob Griggs

While I was in worship recently, the officiant during the invitation for communion invited us as a “broken and hopeful” people to come forward to be served.  As I waited for my turn, I looked at those who were in line in front of me, wondering how in their lives they had been broken and where in their lives they had found hope.  This helped me to feel closer to them and made the sacrament a more intimate experience than I had ever known it to be. We were all one in our shared humanity and in our desire for God’s grace. 

For people living with mental illness, social stigma prevents us from finding this sense of unity, leaving us isolated and alone.  It causes us to hide our brokenness from others, even from those who love us the most.   It keeps us from asking for help when help is so available.  It is also self-reinforcing in that the more we keep quiet the more we reinforce the utterly false belief that we have something to hide and are somehow to blame for our illness.   

Worst of all, stigma makes us ashamed of our own stories.  Yet it is just the sharing of our stories, our own experiences of what mental illness has broken in our lives, that gives us hope. It is the heart of recovery.  Moreover, this giving of hope doesn’t stop with us, it splashes on those around us.  I know this from experience.  When I tell my story of illness and recovery, I benefit, but so do the people living with mental illness who are listening to me.  It’s simple: if I can get better, then recovery is possible and there’s hope that they can get better as well.   

At the communion service, I could only guess at what it was – a physical or mental illness, a major disappointment, a loss of something precious – that brought brokenness into the lives of those around me.  Still I was sure that if we had some time together, time to share our stories, we would have bonded through compassion for one another.   

As we moved forward to receive the sacrament, we were united by more than the hardships in our lives.  We also shared the hope that our need would be met by God’s love.  We were trusting that compassion is not only a human attribute, but that a compassionate God would look upon us and would not turn away.  The invitation to communion had assured us that we are acceptable in the sight of God and welcome guests at the sacrament.  For a person living with mental illness, God’s acceptance brings healing to our shame and self-rejection, making it OK to be open about who we are.  Stigma has no place at the communion table.

As a pastor, I’ve used a lot of different communion liturgies over the years.  The next time I officiate, whatever else I say, I’m going to end by inviting the “broken and hopeful” forward.  I hope that the words will be as healing for them as they were for me.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.   He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness.  He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies.