Becoming Visible

Beauty of Love

All you need is love. Love Love Love. Everyone is singing about it. We all desperately need it.

In the 1950 John Bowby started writing about “Attachment Theory.” This Evolutionary theory suggests that in order for humans and other animals to survive, they need to create secure attachments to each other. They need love. This starts as small infants, if humans are not given loving connection from caregivers, it is likely that the lack of love will have a negative impact on their emotional and cognitive life later.

In the 1950s and 1960s, psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments with infant rhesus monkeys to explore the nature of attachment and social bonding. In one of his most famous experiments, he created surrogate mothers for the infant monkeys: one made of wire with a feeding bottle attached, and another made of soft cloth, but without food.

Surprisingly, despite the wire mother providing nourishment, the infant monkeys consistently preferred the comfort of the foodless cloth mother. This revealed that physical comfort and emotional attachment were more important to the monkeys than mere sustenance.

As mammals we are in desperate need of connection. It is part of our very survival. Loving connection keeps us alive.

John and Love

The John passage that Quin just read is one of the most beautiful passages in the bible. When I read it, I gain a little bit of hope in the Bible. I gain hope in the message of our religious tradition. I gain hope that there is a loving God nurturing each of us, and our community.

This passage is the ethics of the Book of John in a nutshell. Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

When we abide in the love of God. You are no longer servants of God, but in fact Friends, who are called to bear the fruit of this love. And the way to bear this fruit is to go and love one another.

It’s not just that God loves us and that we individually are called to love God. We are in fact also called to love one another.

But unfortunately, not everyone receives this loving connection from the church. Or really anywhere else. Historically those with mental health issues have been ignored from this type of loving connection in the community. And I would like to explore that a bit today.

Introducing Mental Health Matters

Today starts our 3 Sunday series on Mental Health. During the Sunday School hour, individuals from our congregation are sharing their experiences with mental health. Mental Health Practitioners are teaching children’s Sunday School classes. Its a chance for us to reflect on our own experiences with mental health, and what it means to be a community of faith that supports and cares for each of us as we struggle with mental health – from the disorders to caring for one another when we are stressed.

There can be stigma around mental health in our churches, in our theologies, and even in our homes. Things are changing, and this is not the case everywhere.

I know that there are folks in this church community who have received great care from one another around mental health. And there are some that have not. The stigma still exists here and in other churches.

Its not hard to feel the stigma. The lack of response when one shares about their experience. Or the opposite extreme of people trying to problem solve one’s mental health issue. If they would just do this or just do that.

Or even just the absence of conversation about mental health in our churches. If no one is talking about it, if it is made invisible, it makes it all the more difficult to bring up.

The way that the bible has been interpreted hasn’t always helped. Passages that include stories of demons and deliverance from demons have been used on dear friends of mine, who have struggled with mental health, who have been told by religious leaders to pray to have the demons removed instead of seeking professionals that can provide therapy or medication. In this type of theology, those with mental health concerns are being negatively typed as having something demonic: This theological approach is a simple solution to a complex problem.

And lastly, many of us have experienced this stigma in our homes that we grew up in and the homes that we live in now. My own family had mental health issues that were seldom talked about, and part of that has to do with the lack of language and understanding that we have around mental health. Part of that has to do with our discomfort around the issues that others face. Part of it has to do with the shame that communities place on folks who face mental health challenges.

The stigma and shame around mental health isolates us. Our issues are kept tucked away. Made invisible. One does not bare their soul to their community if there is a stigma around mental health.

Gregory Ellison, who does research on care for black men, writes about the feeling of being “Cut Dead.” Not literally cut dead, but, to be cut dead is to be made invisible by others. You are dead to the world, but still alive.

One who is cut dead is ignored by the world. The things you face are made invisible. And so you are also invisible.

When it is stigmatized to share about your mental health, you are cut dead. Invisible. Unheard. So the burden of mental health is increased. Not only does one have to work through the mental health issue, but they have to deal with the social piece of being cut dead by friends, family, church or community. The burden becomes heavier, and heavier and more and more isolating.

How do we address as a community, the silence around mental health? The experience of being cut dead. Made invisible.

Mental health can be addressed in many different ways. You can address by looking at the body – chemical imbalances or lack of exercise or diet. Stress being held in your back or stomach. Addressing the body is a way to address mental health.

And then there is the mind – things like therapy that are influenced by psychology. You can find a million self help books. Not to equate the two. Addressing the mind is a way to address mental health.

There are social ways of addressing mental health – access to food, resources, housing. Not knowing where one is going to sleep or get one’s next meal will do a number on one’s mental health.

And then there is the soul. The work of spirituality. The Connection between humans. Between humans in the divine. And between humans and creation. Tending to one’s soul is to nurture these relationships. The work of the church.

Being cut dead, being made invisible, is an attack on the soul. Our souls long for connection with each other – a connection that points back to things like attachment theory and the monkeys that I talked about earlier.

Gregory Ellison, the author of cut dead, writes “How we choose to see or not to see, to hear and not to hear those around us speaks to our ability to see the presence of God in others.”

How we as a community choose to see or not see our own members’ experiences of mental health is a matter of our ability to see the presence of the holy in one anothers.

When I read our passage in John, the call to love one another, I see it as a call to see one another. Not just to see what I want to see. Not just to see what makes me comfortable, but to be open to seeing the burdens that each of us hold. And in the case of mental health, opening to hearing the stories from each other – not to offer solutions – but listen to the journey. The ups and downs.

It is to say, “I see you, you are human like me, and we are all going to get through this together.”

It is the willingness to have brave conversations with one another – unflinchingly.

One practice that Gregory Ellison taught me when he visited MTSO when I was a student there, is something that we all already know how to do. Its to say, “It’s Good to see you.” To greet the presence of what is invisible. “To see which is overlooked and to hear what is not spoken.“ “To become attentive to what is hidden in plain view.”

It is good to see you.

This is the start of love. The start of Jesus’ commandment “That you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus’ ministry was all about seeing who was invisible and hearing what was unspoken.

He spent time with the people who the rest of society did not want to listen or address to the challenges they faced.

To Love one another as Christ has loved us is to start paying attention to the invisible.

As a community, we can start listening to the stories of those who have experienced mental health issues.

In many ways, teenagers these days have already made these steps in the way of Jesus, in a way that my peers didn’t do just a little over 10 years ago when I was a teen. I hear teens talking about their mental health diagnosis with each other and looking out for each other all of the time. Those of us from other generations could learn a lot from what this next generation has made visible.

At the very beginning of the pandemic, I started to feel chest pain. I quickly wondered, do I have covid? Was I having a lowkey heart attack? I was struggling to breathe. I went to the ER got an EKG and they said everything was fine. It was anxiety. We were living into a pandemic, the world was shutting down, and at the time we knew so little about the what covid was like.

There was a lot of anxiety in the air.

Throughout the next years having therapy and spiritual direction were a great combination in helping me to explore the anxiety. Since then, I have been better able to name – “Oh I am feeling anxious.”

What was invisible to me before when I thought “Am I having a heart attack?” – was now something that I could name and recognize. Anxiety was making my chest hurt. The invisible became visible. And in this case, it was done through love and care for myself by reaching out for support.

Since then, I have shared my story with anxiety, and often, when I share, in response others share their stories too. Sharing begets sharing.

Its a two way street. To love one another requires that we both reach out for support and that we are open to hearing the burdens of one another.

We are Christ beloved. And as we journey together, we seek to become a Beloved community. We are not alone.

Anne Marie and I are going to lead the hymn of response. The verses have a tricky rhythm. Feel to listen or read along if it is too tricky, and join in the refrain.