Lift HIgh the Cross

Lift High the Cross of Sin and Shame We Bear

I had a long ride today to deliver a Titus 2 student’s children back to their grandparents. On the way over the kids and she and I talked about “nicknames” we’d had and how they came to be, as well as some of the names of God and how such names reveal things about who God is and who we are.  We played an alphabet story game, books were read, stretch breaks taken, and naps enjoyed.  Along the way back the student and I had some good discussions.  One was about bearing one’s cross.  She shared with me how she and the other Titus 2 women pray for people at the church they attend, which happens to be my own.  While I and others there have sought to create a hospitable and nurturing environment for them, they have been reluctant to tell me that some of them have been shamed by the words and actions of a few individuals at the church (though hardly a handful out of the 2000 or so people who call our church “home”).  They have experienced disapproving looks and been turned away from as if they were not present.  This student said that she and the other Titus 2 ladies realize that people are not perfect just because they attend church every Sunday, that all have their “crosses to bear” and need prayer. I wished that I could say I am shocked at such reports.  However, having experienced similar behavior toward me from some Christians in other settings, not in my own home church, I know that what they have experienced at the hands of some is very real.

Whatever hardship, handicap, or hurt one has we can cling to it and, as some have said, essentially “die on the cross of our woundedness.”  Or we can surrender the pain, whatever it is (bitterness, shame, stigma, humiliation, pridefulness, jealousy, anger, etc.) to Christ for him to bear.  Actually, he already has.  But when we fully embrace Christ’s work of atonement personally for ourselves, our individual “crosses” that we bear can become, like Christ’s, not an instrument of pain, humiliation, and death but a symbol of victory and resurrection power.

Here on the last day of May I am reflecting on the “take-away’s” I have learned this month as we come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Month.  I have worked in the mental health service community for 10 years.  Before that I shared my life and experience of an acute depression in 1997 with others who were experiencing depression in a small support group.  I have always been pretty transparent about that experience and the lessons gleaned from it.  But this month it has become very apparent to me that no matter how much work one has done in education, counseling, prayer, spiritual healing, self-care, recovery, and moving on from an event or season in life or in the case of some, learning to cope with and live life with a mental health diagnosis daily, there are those who will use it against you.  In that regard, I and others have experienced the community of faith to be no different, really, than the rest of society in judging and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of  factors such as gender, age, race, perceived or actual mental illness, sexual orientation, appearance, socio-economic or education status, and any number of others.

The stigma of a mental health challenge, whether acute and brief or chronic and life-long, becomes something that some will not understand and, lacking understanding, will be suspicious, judgmental, and unwelcoming.   

The Lord has shown me that because of my experience with depression I have been invited into ministry, in part, to be an advocate for those diagnosed with mental health challenges including substance abuse, co-dependency, PTSD, suicidal ideations, fears, anxiety, bipolar, sexual/physical/emotional abuse and other life-limiting diagnoses and dysfunctions.  I work to educate both the clients and the community about such issues, point the individuals to helpful resources, including biblical principles and practices, and help invite them into healthy community for support, healing, and direction.  I have observed how quickly some will hang a judgment on someone with little personal experience or attempt to know and understand them.

To go behind the scenes and discover conversations and witness firsthand the degree of  suspicion and discrimination that exists and the judgmental conduct exhibited, even by some leaders within the church, toward individuals with any kind of mental health history is astounding.   The avoidance behaviors and  the  dishonesty and insincerity that are directed at such people is atrocious and occurs even in settings in which one would  expect compassion, wisdom, mercy, and grace.

The reason I believe God has given me such a heart for those who have had or continue to experience diagnoses of mental illness is because the discrimination is so clear and palpable toward those who already suffer in the effort to bear their crosses.  They need to know that God does not view them the way the world does and that there is abundant life to be had no matter what the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Edition 5, or any other person says about a person’s symptoms or personality.

There was a time when I witnessed how simply genuinely welcoming some mentally impaired young women and their caregiver into church as they arrived led to a renewal of the caregiver’s faith and to the joy of seeing these young women come and enjoy worship and fellowship and be invited to share in service to others through their prayers for those on our church’s prayer list. To call their names and embrace and welcome them is to see them as the people of worth they are.  Instead I have witnessed some who averted their eyes, avoided conversation, or simply pretended they were not there.  Sadly, I have been on both sides of the horn of that hospitality dilemma.  While such inhospitable conduct is offensive to the one who experiences it, it is offensive also to God.  And I will speak out anytime discrimination is directed at those to whom the stigma of mental illness has been summarily attached by untrained individuals who fail to even check their assumptions against facts or allow an individual to offer one’s own perspective of the “cross” she bears.

The APA’s DSM-5 continues the trend of making what had previously been considered “abnormal” normal and at the same time attaching its stigma to many who are quite capable of living healthy and balanced lives.

As the month of Mental Health Awareness comes to an end, I wish I could say that we have made strides as a society in reducing the discrimination against those with mental health diagnoses.   I can see why so many people whose mental health has been  questioned live in denial, silence, rejecting the shame that others have projected onto them, and even vehemently defending their right to be who they are.  Sadly, I must report that what I have seen this past month suggests to me that in many arenas, we have not come very far in understanding what real “mental health” is. 

We as Christians and the church need to spend a lot more time glorying in the crosses being lifted up in victory and resurrection power in Christ and a whole lot less time attempting to ignore and hide those who have already and who are continuing to learn how to surrender to Christ and allow him to lift high the cross of sin and shame we bear through his redemptive work on his own cross.

Cathy Byrd, MS CRSS

Christian Educator and Life Recovery Counselor