I am one of those people.
You know the ones. Turning up at church just to use the creche facilities. Arriving late, and making too much noise in the process. Glazing over during the sermon. And way too shattered to raise my hands during the appropriate section of the worship time.
In short, I am a parent.
Church can be tricky for parents at the best of times. All that shushing. And fidgeting. All the unfortunately timed nappy-fillings. All the times when your children come bombing through the middle of the congregation during a time of silent reflection shouting “run, Aladdin, run!” For instance.
If you’re a parent with mental health problems, it gets even trickier. The anxiety. The fear. The temptation to completely disengage. The quite frankly enormous effort that it took to haul yourself out of bed in the morning, let alone get dressed and out of the house, only to have to deal with two small children who refuse to engage with any of the all-age activities, and would rather just crawl under the table and shriek. The shame. The embarrassment. Coupled with the feeling that quite frankly, you’d much rather hide under that table with them. Forever.
Meanwhile, covering it all like a blanket, the overwhelming greyness. The ache. The numbness that feels like it will never, ever end.
I know. I’ve been there. Two children, and two soul-destroying bouts of postnatal depression that very nearly put an end to our family as we know it.
I didn’t feel The Joy Of The Lord. I couldn’t sing the hymns. And, first time round at least, I didn’t dare tell anyone, Fearful of the judgment, and the inevitable advice that would follow – telling me that I needed to pray harder. Or better. That I should just have read my Bible more. That I was being punished for some distant, unnameable sin. Of mine, or my parents, or that girl down the street with the guinea pigs.
Second time around, God nudged me so hard during one afternoon service that I heard him, even through the fog that enveloped my brain. He told me to share my depression. My darkest, deepest secret. With my church. I did. And I will forever be grateful for their response. For the love, and the care, and the tenderness that poured over me, and my husband, and our children in the years that followed. That continues to buoy us up now, on the difficult days, even as we push our way down the road to recovery.
That love, and that care, and that unconditional ‘sitting-with’, even in my messiness and brokenness and utter, useless despair has changed my life. It’s changed my relationship with God forever. Teaching me the real meaning of love, and grace, and acceptance.
But I have friends who I suffer alongside. Who don’t go to my church. They go to different ones. Where they are beyond terrified to share their secrets because of the shame, and the stigma and the judgement that they fear will follow. What if I’d been part of one of those churches, three years ago when I first stepped out to tell my story? I can’t even begin to imagine what our little family would look like now. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
I know that we’re difficult customers. Those of us who are mentally ill. The depressed. The manic. The psychotic. We don’t fit the image of the standard Sunday Christian. I know that we’re not always engaged. I know that we make you uncomfortable. That you don’t know what to say to us. That sometimes we make you afraid. I know all of this. Because before I got sick, I would have felt exactly the same.
We may not fit neatly into your congregation. We know that. But we desperately want to be known. To be loved. To be treated like human beings, and children of God. To be cared for, and supported and cherished. Just as we are.
God was with me, in the deepest, darkest pit of my depression. Holding my hand, keeping me safe, and waiting. Not cajoling, or nudging, or prodding. Just waiting. And sitting with me. I didn’t need to recover before he would love me. I knew that, without a shadow of a doubt. Now that I am, tentatively, one-day-at-a-time ‘better’, he’s walking with me into a new phase of life, and holding my hand just the same.
Parenting is hard. It’s relentless. It never lets up. Mental illness is the same. Both together can be absolutely crippling. Unless you have a safe place to turn.
What if the church could be that place of safety? That place where your hand is held. Where your family is cared for. Where people will sit with you, and love you, and wait. With no pressure. Or judgment. Or expectation. What if the church could, indeed, be Jesus in this situation? To these people. To my people. To His people.
Because, when the final hymn is sung, we’re all His people. Every single messy one of us.