Book Review: Blessed are the Crazy
Posted August 21, 2015on:
Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church by Sarah Griffith Lund, Chalice Press, 2014, 116 pp.
This book is brave. Sarah Lund commits from the very beginning to testify–to bear witness to the heartache and struggle of her own life and where God has (and hasn’t) been present and active in it. Then she follows through, confessing to her own pain, the pain of her family, and stories of brokenness and hope. Her vulnerability as a writer, pastor and person left me humbled and challenged to pursue that kind of testifying in my own life and ministry.
Before the book even begins, there is a definition offered for “crazy in the blood,” referring to the genetic predisposition to brain disease and “why some families are more dysfunctional than others.” This is Lund’s family and her story. She begins in her own voice as a five-year-old child, recalling a story of violence from her father after church. Her testimony unfolds through her teen and young adult years, as her father’s violence and mental illness unravel his life. Even as a local church helps her to know that “not everything in my life was ruined,” (7) Lund feels as though a God of love cannot reside in a home filled with such hate, and that faith and hope are set out to sea. She finds faith renewed in her college years, along with the perspective to understand her father’s violence as an illness.
After her years as a child and youth, her testimony turns to a faithful wrestling with how to love members of her family whose mental illness risks destroying their lives, and hers along with them. It is not just about her father. Her eldest brother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she comes to care for a cousin on death row for a murder likely triggered by untreated mental illness and family abuse. It is painful to read, but her truth-telling is healing and liberating.
While my own testimony is not shaped by “crazy in the blood,” I found myself relating to her journey in many ways. This is what makes it testimony–that it was not just a story about her life, but about God at work, which means I could come to see God at work in my life through it. She describes her father, brother and cousins as her greatest spiritual teachers, and they became my spiritual teachers too. For example, her brother Scott describes his relationship with God:
When he is mentally stable he believes in God; when he is feeling manic he believes he is God; and when he is feeling depressed he believes there is no God. (44)
While I am not subject to the pain of Scott’s illness, I can recognize my own relationship with God in his description. I too find myself thinking that I am god-like when I feel strong and capable, just as I doubt God’s existence when I falter and fail.
Healing is a word that Lund uses carefully and sparingly. Mental illness has no cure. Though it can be managed throughout life, it will again and again flare up to cause damage and distress. She uses the powerful metaphor of bearing the cross.
By bearing the cross of mental illness and carrying it, we can move it–not rid ourselves of it or deny it–to a place of transformation like Golgotha. … Instead of only being the instrument that killed Jesus, the cross became a symbol of the power of God to overcome the sins of the world. In the resurrection, God shows us that what is broken by this world can be made whole again. … I believe that by telling our stories of mental illness, by giving our own testimonies for mental health, we can carry our crosses to more healing places, even places of transformation. (51-52)
Subsequent chapters challenge social notions (and Christian ones) about people with mental illness. She talks about the execution of her cousin and crushing power of state-sanctioned murder. She asks, “if God was with Paul and in Paul, what happened to the God-part of Paul when he was executed? Did part of God get executed too?” (68) Her answer–that “part of me and part of God died the night of Paul’s execution”–indicts our whole system of “justice.” A similar indictment follows as she talks about a kind of Christian faith that believes faith and prayer are sufficient alone to combat the brain diseases that her family has suffered, or that they suffer due to insufficient faith in God.
Instead, Lund offers a better, more compassionate way for churches and Christians to journey with people with mental illness and their families. She evokes a theology of suffering, where mental illness is neither a blessing nor a curse, but a situation in which God enters to accompany humans in their suffering. As people of faith, we should join God in that faithful, compassionate work of accompaniment. The book concludes with practical suggestions for churches about how to begin those kinds of ministries.
At first, what stands out most about Blessed are the Crazy are the personal stories, whose vivid drama draw attention and stick in the reader’s memory. But the book matters not just for its storytelling, but for the theology of suffering and God’s persistent love in the midst of it, and for the challenge to people of faith to live out that love by walking together with those who are suffering from “crazy in the blood.” This book is a gift to all clergy, to families seeking hope in mental illness, and to church communities seeking to respond.