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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.

Good News for Reluctant Hearts by Rachael Keefe

written by Rachael Keefe - reposted from her blog, Write Out of Left Field

I gave up trying to be happy and joyful just because it’s the holiday season a long time ago. Growing up, I thought I was the only one who didn’t have the perfect Norman Rockwell (or, these days, Hallmark) family. Nearly every year I would end up in tears on Christmas day because it was a disappointment in one way or another. Christmas left me with an empty, lonely feeling more often than not. While it has been years since I’ve felt that aching loneliness during the holidays, I am finding it more than a bit challenging to enter into all the “feels” of the season this year. Heaven knows, I’ve been trying. But I am caught in a colossal disconnect between what is and what God has promised.

Full disclosure – I had pacemaker surgery a few days ago. I’m recovering just fine after some complications during the procedure itself. Mostly, I am grateful for access to the healthcare and technology that has sped up my reluctant heart. Honestly, though, I’m a bit angry that I need a pacemaker at the age of 52. You know, the unfairness of the cosmos and all that. I don’t think it is God’s will that I have dysautonomia or that it is a punishment for my sins or anything like that. I understand that stuff happens that God does not intend or want for anyone. Asking “why me?” accomplishes nothing. Why not me? I am fortunate enough to be able to get the medical care I need. Still, in a perfect world, my heart would beat as it should without electronic encouragement.

My illness is one small thing that points to the gap between what is and what God has promised. In the grand scheme of the universe, its not a big deal. However, these days in particular, it is almost a metaphor for all that is broken in the world. Our collective heart, if you will, doesn’t beat as it was intended. With every act of hatred, violence, dehumanization, and failing to care what happens to any of our neighbors, the heartbeat of humanity slows a bit more.

Into this we hear the Baptist’s cry to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” How do we make a way for God in a world that seems bent on destruction? How do we make visible the power of Love in a world where politicians cut benefits without considering the people who receive them? How do we make space for God in a world that blames people for their circumstances instead of genuinely seeking ways to alleviate suffering while maintaining or, better yet, elevating human dignity? Wolves and lambs, calves and lions, and cows and bears are not going to be lying down together any time soon. And if they did, who would notice?

The despair and hopelessness that consumes innocent lives on a daily basis threatens to engulf us all. Unless, by grace, we are willing to pay heed to what God has promised to the whole of creation. When we focus on what human beings have done, and continue to do to destroy each other and the planet, our attention is taken from things that could save us. To only see the brokenness is to fail to see what God is doing right this minute to reveal the beauty and awe and wonder that is still afoot in the world.

I’m not suggesting that we live in denial. That won’t change anything or help in anyway. Just like I could not ignore my ridiculously slow heart rate, we cannot ignore the suffering all around us. On the other hand, we cannot focus on it either. If we are really going to prepare the way for God to break into the world once more, we have to look for the sacred amidst the suffering. We have to choose hope when the world hands us despair. We need to seek peace when we encounter chaos. We need to foster a sense of joy when anger shouts at us from every direction. And we need to embody love while the world embraces hatred. It’s about the choices we make. We can choose to seek out God’s holy ways and those places where it is possible for enemies to unite and the hungry to be fed in spite of the ugliness all around us.

If each one of us chooses to seek the Holy in spite of the helplessness and hopelessness all around us, some valleys might rise up and some mountains might sink down. None of us is likely to be cured of disease or illness just by changing attitude and perspective. Yet, I can’t help but think that intentionally seeking out God amidst the anger, the despair, the chaos, the suffering, the ignorance, and all that the world’s heart labors under, we might discover the spiritual pacemaker that will allow us to experience the promises of Christmas in new ways. We might even discover some of the hope, peace, joy, and love that the season promises, or realize that it has been there all along.

Where we choose to put our attention and our energy matters. God is still at work in the world. God’s promises of love, wholeness, forgiveness, and healing haven’t been revoked. They are out there waiting for us to live into them, and thereby, embody them for all our neighbors. Advent is an opportunity for a strange and wonderful journey from what is to what God promises. May our reluctant hearts find the spiritual encouragement they need in the days ahead.
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.

The Importance of Rituals by Megan Snell

written by Megan Snell

At the end of September, I was installed as Settled Pastor in the congregation that I serve, just north of Boston. That same month, my wife was promoted to CPT in the US Army National Guard. For each of these transitions there was ceremony and ritual. There was a laying on of hands for me. There was an entire formation of colleagues witnessing her promotion oaths. Each of us are blessed to serve in vocations that are rich with rituals that regularly mark our progression through our careers. Rituals are so important for people as individuals and also for communities. Rituals are important not only at moments of bridging up on a particular path. They are also important reminders of our connections with one another.

While many resources for churches regarding mental health/ illness in congregational life focus on pastoral care, rituals are a vital component of religious life that can be transformational and impactful for people living with mental health conditions. Very few spaces in our society offer rituals on a regular basis.  There are AA and NA meetings, graduations at the end of school years, scouting. Aside from these moments, humans hunger for rituals, particularly physical ones, that make meaning of their lives as humans and in relationship with the Sacred. In church, we offer communion and baptism, we recite the Lord's Prayer together. What other rituals do we need to craft, offer, and practice that would be helpful for people living with mental health conditions?

I  recently reflected on this passage by Monica Coleman, in her book Bipolar Faith (which I highly recommend!). Coleman writes extensively of the importance of spiritual rituals in her own experiences:

“Rituals were supposed to help. ...rituals get into our skin and teach us about our deepest values. They reassure us of community. Professor Weems writes, ‘Rituals are routines that force us to live faithfully even when we no longer feel like being faithful. Until our heart has the time to arouse itself and fits its way back to those we love, rituals make us show up for duty.’ You take the wafer and juice. Eventually you learn that you are forgiven and can forgive. You pour water over children. Eventually you learn that community grows one person at a time. You go into buildings with people who share your faith, and eventually you learn that you are not alone in the world. And when the old rituals don’t work, you create new rituals that embody the lessons and values you want to impart.”

I appreciate that the rituals around death that we provide in our congregations can be echoed in rituals for people who have experienced trauma or a marked psycho-spiritual shift from one part of their life to the next. What might it look like to develop faith-filled, impactful rituals for our congregation to experience after times of trauma or experiences of mental distress? How might thoughtful rituals be a part of accompanying people living with mental health conditions?
Rev. Megan Snell is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, currently serving in the Boston metro area. She also lives with chronic mental illness. Megan is a doctoral student at the Pacific School of Religion, studying the intersection of mental illness and the Christian community. She holds an MDiv from Andover Newton Theological School. Megan writes, teaches, and preaches regularly on the topics of mental health, mental illness, and faith. She also serves as Co-Moderator of the UCC's 2030 Clergy Network. Megan is a board game nerd and a hiking enthusiast. She and her wife share their home with three rescue dogs.