For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘healing

Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church by Sarah Griffith Lund, Chalice Press, 2014, 116 pp.

Blessed are the CrazyThis 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.

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2008, 740 pp.

hour i first believedOh, Wally Lamb! He knows how to plumb the depths of brokenness and healing, sin and forgiveness, estrangement and relationship. I have read both She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, so I knew what to expect from his latest tome–a deep, searing, introspective novel with haunting sadness but always hope.

The Hour I First Believed maps the personal and psychological devastation of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who were both teachers at Columbine High School in the 1999 mass shooting. While Caelum was away tending to his aunt after a stroke, Maureen experienced a trauma that broke her apart. Both of them unraveled, in their own ways, because of the shooting and its aftermath. They return to his aunt’s farm to recover, and Caelum gains access to his family’s long history and discovers information that discloses secrets that cause him to question his own identity. (I thought the long excursions into the past did not add much to the quality of the novel, and even detracted from its power. They could have been much shorter, or omitted altogether and the book would have felt stronger to me.)

I can’t say that I enjoy Wally Lamb’s work. I usually find it difficult and painful to read. However, that’s what makes it so valuable. Lamb’s characters are never perfect and they do not conform to expectations or neat categories. They do not behave like we want them to, and they frustrate and confuse. That’s what makes them so rich. What keeps me returning to Lamb’s work, even as agonizing as it can be, is that Lamb wrestles these complicated, broken characters into a place of hope and grace. It’s never easy, it’s never fully wrought or resolved, but he points the way to faith, every time.

Below are a few gems from the story, keys to unlocking the hope at the end of such sorrow.

Words from a pastor at a community meeting organized by local churches after the Columbine massacre:

We need to stare back, without blinking, at the depravity of these boys’ actions and realize that our love is more powerful than their hatred.” (203)

I said something very similar when facing the murder of a young girl in my congregation, with the shorthand “love wins.”

A little process theology tucked in, too, as Caelum quotes a chaos theorist he met on an airplane:

He said maybe God wasn’t Allah or Jesus Christ or any of the other deities that people are always using as an excuse to go to war over. That maybe all ‘God’ was was mutuation. Mutability. The thing that happens when the DNA we’re ‘carrying forward’ from our ancestors suddenly jumps the track. Gets altered in some unpredictable way, and, for better or worse, sets the first domino falling in a different direction. (451)

Caelum gets words about faith and doubt from an unlikely source, a retired chauffeur for a beer company.

Well, let me give you a piece of advice, Mr. I Have My Doubts. Next time you’re in a bad way and you’re asking this god you have your doubts about to help you, just remember that the question you gotta ask isn’t Why? or If? The question is How? You got that? Not why. Not if. How. (519)

When Caelum teaches a class on “The Quest in Literature” at the local community college, they explore the role and importance of myth in healing. The closing assignment is to examine Picasso’s Minotauromachia and discuss what they see in the picture and what it says about modern life. One student responds thus:

“This picture shows us what all the myths we studied told us,” he concluded. “Life is messy, violent, confusing and hopeful.” (685)

That is what any good story will do–an ancient myth, a biblical text, and a good novel. Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is just such a story. It’s messy, violent, confusing and hopeful, and I recommend it to you.

Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal by Rachel Naomi Remen, Riverhead Books, New York, 1996, 337 pp.

This book was recommended to me by my friend (and faithful reader!) Lynn, who thought my own writing reminded her of the storytelling in this book, one of her personal favorites. What a high compliment to have received! I had never heard of Remen or her work before Lynn mentioned her to me, and I treasured this book from cover to cover.

Remen is an extraordinary person herself–a medical doctor turned therapist turned holistic healer and medical school professor, who has also lived with a chronic illness of her own for fifty years. The book is a collection of stories, written in a style that is simple and beautiful. They are stories about healing. Sometimes, a patient finds spiritual and emotional healing even as their body continues to waste away. Sometimes, a patient finds healing for the body in the healing of the soul. In other stories, there is too much pain, and the patient is not willing to enter into healing.

It took me several weeks to read this book, because I wanted to savor every story. It’s the kind of book I want to come to know, to read again and again so that I can absorb its stories and make them my own. During the weeks I have been reading this book, I have been dealing with many difficult situations at church, and found myself feeling broken, battered and exhausted. Remen’s stories had healing power for me too, as I took time to read just a few short episodes every night as a way of remembering wholeness in the midst of chaos.

What a beautiful book. Thank you, Lynn, for recommending it. I encourage anyone who wants to learn more about healing, in need of healing, or who practices the healing and caring arts to take the time to read it, slowly.

On March 2, deadly tornadoes ripped through our community. In the immediate aftermath, experts and volunteers and resources poured in from across the country. Now, two months later, we have established a long term recovery team with eight active committees in charge of everything from construction and volunteer management to spiritual and emotional care. Local leaders, including me, have come forward to lead the organization for the next 18-24 months. The outside experts and leaders are on their way out. FEMA left town on Friday. In the last few weeks I have heard these disaster responders, both from the government and religious organizations, repeatedly use the phrase “own your own disaster.” It’s time, they say, for the community to own its own disaster, and take charge of their own recovery.

Owning our own disaster is not an easy process. In the first few days, it was all about having survived, and helping neighbors survive. As the days turned into weeks, it was all about getting help. Everyone was eagerly awaiting aid from others—from insurance, from FEMA, from the Red Cross, from family or churches or other organizations. People seemed to believe that these groups would save them from their distress, that money and resources would pour in, and that these aid groups would restore them to wholeness.

However, insurance has deductibles. FEMA only gives away money to those without insurance; others must take out low-interest loans, which must be paid back. Even voluntary organizations reserve their dollars and donations for those with no other resources of their own. The realization that no one was going to fix it was met with anger, frustration and grief, as we realized that the much of the burden and cost of the disaster would still rest with those who had already lost so much.

As the weeks have passed, the emotions have tempered and the community has come together to move forward. It is our community, after all. We should be the ones in charge of rebuilding it. The recovery will take many months, and those outside volunteers and experts need to return to their lives and their homes. They cannot bear the cost of rebuilding our community for us. The disaster represents much hardship, but also much opportunity—the chance to remake things better than they were before. As we learn to own our own disaster, we take responsibility for the future of our own community.

I can’t help but reflect that I have seen this pattern before, many times, as I have walked with families through their own personal disasters. A tragedy, a diagnosis, an accident, a life-changing mistake—there is always an initial rush of aid, followed by the disappointing realization that no one can fix this for you, that only you and God can put your own life back together again. The grief, the anger, the frustration are all too familiar. Like the survivors of the tornado, sometimes it’s hard to realize that even though the disaster occurred through no fault of your own, the responsibility for healing and rebuilding still lies with you, because it’s your life. Sometimes, when we find ourselves in disasters of our own making, we still want someone else to step in and rescue us.

Yet in order to heal and be restored to wholeness, we all have to learn to own our own disasters. It may not be fair, but little in life is. We can’t heal unless we take responsibility for our own healing, and that requires for taking responsibility for our own disaster, even if it came about through no fault of our own.

All New People, by Anne Lamott, North Point Press, 1989.

Anne Lamott has done it to me again. The book may be 20 years old, written about a childhood 50 years ago, but the feelings and experiences of vulnerability, heartache and broken human relationships are as fresh as ever. All New People is the story of Nanny Goodman growing up in Marin County in the 1960s, with off-kilter parents and a clash between the tennis club perfection (and imperfection) and the leftist/hippie counterculture. We read Nanny’s perspective on the complicated and changing adult relationships with her parents, relatives and friends as she navigates her own attempts at relationships and growing selfhood.

This book spoke to me on a deep level. I was in tears before I even reached the first chapter. The prologue takes place in a hypnotist’s office, where grown-up Nanny has gone to find healing for her “anxiety, melancholia, fears of loss, rejection, death, humiliation, suicide, madness…” (6). The hypnotist asks her to scroll back through her life’s most painful memories, one by one, as though viewing each as a snapshot and analyzing the poses. She goes back to the very beginning, one of her earliest memories of pain, and then the hypnotist instructs her to help her child-self through each situation, offering words of comfort, healing, humor and forgiveness.

Nanny’s walk through her life’s painful moments became my walk through mine. There are painful memories in my life that I cling to fiercely, angrily. I have protected my anger in those moments like it is the only thing guarding my child-self from complete collapse. Probably, it once was. But Nanny’s walk made me realize that there is another way to protect the young girl in my memories. I don’t need to be angry and defensive on her behalf—perhaps I can just give her what she needed then, to help her out with comfort, healing, humor and forgiveness. Since reading that prologue, I have already begun a process of reviewing my personal painful snapshots, and stepping in to change the picture. I have been carrying these hurts for a long, long time. I already feel like the stone has been rolled away. The age-old anger is starting to abate, and the forgiveness creeping in. It has been a long time coming.

Later in the novel, Nanny describes an moving experience she had in church:

In a way that I’ve never quite understood, the veil tore an inch for me that day, like it does every so often, when in the midst of all that is mundane and day-to-day, there’s suddenly a tiny tear in the veil, and you see the bigger brighter thing, and then the veil repairs itself, and the day goes on as before. (142)

This is a great description of my experiences of holy encounters—but even more, it is what happened to me in reading the prologue of this book. The veil opened for me a tiny bit, and God shone through.

I think it’s Lamott’s perspective on life that opens my heart through her words. She just puts everything out there, with an amazing amount of honesty and reality. Things that I dare not speak, she names and pokes at and exposes to light. I think the clue to why and how is in the title line from the book:

I said to her what Ed said to me, which was why do we make it all seem like a crisis, over and over again? Why do we worry it all to death, like dogs with socks or chew-toys? ‘Look at it this way,’ he said to me. ‘In a hundred years? — All new people.’ (117)

In a hundred years, all new people. Or, as Isaiah 40 puts it, “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” So why worry ourselves about these old human hurts? Why delay forgiveness? “Comfort, comfort O my people.”

Once again, art is healing. Thank you, Anne Lamott.

Appetites: On the Search for True Nourishment by Geneen Roth, Dutton Books, 1996.

This post feels like an act of courage.

I’ve never talked or written openly about my struggles with eating. I don’t usually read self-help books, or anything that could be found on those shelves in the bookstore. I ardently refuse to consider any materials on dieting, and I loathe the culture of thinness that prizes an impossibly unhealthy body type for women.

But the truth is that I don’t have a good relationship with food, and I am trying to work on that relationship, for the sake of my physical and mental health. And this book doesn’t talk about how to get thin, or why we should want to eat healthy food, or an eight-step program to a better you, or BMI or exercise or clothing size or body image or even addiction. If it had, I probably would not have continued reading it.

This book talks about exactly what I am working on—a relationship with food, which is about a relationship with ourselves and with our bodies. Geneen Roth chronicles her own difficult relationship with food in a voice that is so raw and honest that it almost feels like you are reading someone’s well-written personal journal. Her brokenness and craziness and twisted thinking and self-doubt are right there, exposed to the light and thoughtfully captured in language. But so are the words of forgiveness and healing and rationality and sympathy and advocacy. They are right next to each other—brokenness paired with healing, good thinking intertwined with continued bad choices, reasonable perspective mingled with crazy old tapes full of negative self-talk.

Which is exactly my experience of my relationship with food. Ah, companionship! (Ironically, a word derived from sharing food—com, with; pan, bread; companion, one you break bread with.)

Roth’s raw honesty and good writing are the great gifts of this book. She captures my experience and that of so many other women, and somehow just seeing your thoughts and feelings reflected on the page, organized and articulated, helps sort through them and even let go of some of them.

The other great gift is Roth’s own brokenness. For me, my relationship with food cycles through good and bad. I keep thinking I have found healing, only to end up right back where I started in a bad place. Roth, in spite of having written bestselling books and held thousands of seminars, does the same thing. And she doesn’t just say, “Now, I still struggle sometimes,” and cover it over with slick presentations of the way forward—she takes us right with her to the crazy place that still lives on in spite of books, seminars and success.

There were particular moments of crazy—and accompanying insights of healing—that especially touched me, but I feel vulnerable enough already without exposing my particular crazies. I wish I could be as honest as Roth is. Daylight in itself is healing. But for now, I will continue my search for true nourishment with the gift of companionship, and a reminder that healing in relationships is not a once-and-for-all, one-and-done experience. Just like healing in relationships with people, finding healing in my relationship with food is an ongoing journey, fraught with obstacles and setbacks, yet still a journey well worth taking.

One small, crazy step at a time.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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