The Anniversary Book: Friday Morning Coffee #64

During our first year of marriage, we adopted what may be a unique anniversary practice. (I have no memory whatsoever of who gave us the idea.) We walked to the quaint neighborhood bookstore and purchased a beautiful hardbound notebook. Each year, on our anniversary, we pull that notebook from the shelf and reflect on the year that's passed. We write down the major events of the year, the things we've learned and ways we've grown, and things to work on or goals for the next year.

As of this week, that small red volume has four years worth of entries. It's a slow chronicle of our life together. The people we've met, the adventures we've been on, the activities that have consumed our time. Even after four years, we can look back on how we've grown (and some ways we haven't) and how God has answered some of our hearts' desires. It's encouraging and challenging. It helps us to remember.

I can only imagine what it will be like to look back through that book after decades of marriage. There will be so many stories to tell.

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Meal Trains Aren't Just for Cancer and Babies

I learned how to make pie the year my mom had cancer. She was recovering from surgery over the holidays and confined to the couch. I carried lumps of pie dough and bowls of meringue to where she lay, for her to inspect and coach me through to the right texture. Sometimes, I would walk in and find her asleep, and I would quietly tip toe back to the kitchen and go with my gut and my memories from sitting in the kitchen when she’d baked them year after year. It was a strange role reversal—I was the one in the kitchen, she was the one ill on the couch. I felt maternally protective of her rest.

My dad became caretaker as my mom went through the cycles of treatments, those monosyllabic poisons they pumped into her chest to ward off a deeper evil. I was away for my third year of college, trying to support from afar. My mom dealt with prescription changes and side effects. We all found ways to keep ourselves sane. 

Casseroles and baked pastas would appear and reappear in my parents' kitchen. A friend, who in the following years would win my heart and become my husband, made a chicken pot pie with his mom and drove it to our house. We had friends who prayed, who gave rides, who kept us company on the hard days. They let us vent, cry, hope. They kept showing up. 

There are many families with our story. There are many who have walked longer roads and darker ones. There are many whose story didn’t end as happily as ours. 

For many of us, the Christian community rallied around us. They were a safe place to share the news of what we were going through. We knew we would be met with sympathy, with support, with prayers, and a meal train.

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But what if my mom’s diagnosis hadn’t been cancer? What if she’d started exhibiting erratic behavior or paranoia? What if she heard voices telling her to harm herself? What if depression suffocated all delight? What if, instead of a breakdown in the cells in her chest, there was a breakdown in her brain? What if she had been diagnosed with a mental illness?

For the families I know who have been crippled by mental illness, the response is quite different. They may hesitate to share out of fear or shame or awkwardness. If they do garner the courage, they’re often met with spiritualized criticism or silence. 

And yet they are experiencing a lot of the same challenges my family faced as my mom went through the crisis period of diagnosis and treatment for cancer. They face strange role reversals. There are increased and ever-shifting caretaking responsibilities. They go through cycles of doctor appointments and prescription changes and side effects. A spouse may need to step away from a job, causing financial strain. They feel lonely and tired and wonder if there will be a day when life will return to a normal rhythm. 

The churches I have been a part of know how to support families through challenging illnesses. (And new babies, but I digress.) We have our traditional tools: food and prayer. Sometimes we raise money for medical bills. Sometimes we volunteer to watch young children or chauffeur to appointments. We send cards and notes. We know how to support our extended family of brothers and sisters in Christ. Mental illness shouldn’t be excluded from this extension of love and support. 

Do you know a family going through a mental health crisis or strained by severe mental illness? Respond like you would if it were any other illness. Send them an encouraging card. Let them know you’re praying for them. Take them a meal. Offer to watch their children. Ask them what practical things you can do to help. Be a friend—and keep showing up. 
 

Talking to Strangers: Friday Morning Coffee #63

I’ve been reminded recently how much I like talking to strangers.

I know there are some of you who will not relate to this sentiment, who loath the customers that strike up conversations, the neighbors who pop over to say hello, the events that drain your introverted energy dry with all of the talking. I know you, and I love you. But most of the time, I can't relate.

I'm not referring to merely chit-chatty small talk pleasantries - these I do find draining. I'm talking about those moments when I find myself in an interesting and engaging conversation with a person I barely know.

When the hairdresser tells me about her Bible-reading plan. When I have C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity on my lap and the old timer sharing my bench asks what I'm reading. When I find myself in the "deep end" of mental illness and discipleship and gender expectations with a fellow stranded passenger in an airport waiting area. When we discover a shared interest or passion and the words tumble as we volley ideas. 

I leave these moments energized. They fuel my creativity. They sharpen my mind.

I'm still trying to figure out why. I think part of it is the reality that I have no inkling where their thought processes - and therefore their comments - are going to go. I don't know how their brains work. I don't know their experiences or emotional responses. I'm not familiar with their facial expressions. I don't know what they know or where they've been. With friends, I have at least some sort of framework to know what to expect. With a stranger, the field is wide open. 

I think one of the other reasons I find these moments so delightful is that they're unexpected. I never know when I'll stumble into one. When I'll leave with my heart smiling and my mind abuzz with our conversation. When I'll want to rush back to my notebook and write everything down before it eases from my memory.

So I'll continue to keep my eyes open. Because you never know when a stranger might just become a friend.

Mental Health Month Resources: Friday Morning Coffee #62

1 in 5. That's how many Americans experience a diagnosable mental illness each year. 1 in 25 live with a serious mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. 

For most of us, statistics like this are simply stored as a data point. They bounce off our brains with little impact. So pause with me for a moment. Let your mind trace over the faces and names of the people you know, and do a little mental math. How many people in your family? How many in your church? How many in your workplace, your school, your playgroup, your sports team? 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I'm thinking this morning about the precious people I know who struggle with mental illness. The ones who are afraid or ashamed or don't have access to seek treatment. The ones who choose life and health each day by taking a few small pills or talking to a trusted counselor. The ones who have been burned by stigma or ignorance or cold comforters. The ones who have shared their stories - and the many who have not. 

I'm thinking about my own struggles with depression. Of how I wrestled to come to terms with it, of the words I wish I could speak to my younger self. Of how it's cracked open my heart to care for others. 

Perhaps mental illness has intimately touched your life. I want you to know you are not alone. Keep "choosing life," holding onto hope, and continue to bravely seek out trusted friends to support you. If I can be of any help, you can contact me here.

Perhaps this conversation is new to you. Perhaps you aren't sure what you think of mental illness. I'm glad you're here. I'd encourage you to take a moment today to learn a bit more (see the links below) and to listen carefully and compassionately to other people's stories.

Mental Health Month Resources

This month is a good time to pause and learn more about mental illness, find support as a caregiver, share your story, or perhaps to seek help for the first time. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the best one-stop resource I know of. I've included links below to get you started.

I would also strongly recommend the mental health resources on Kay Warren's website. She has become a powerful Christian mental health advocate in the last several years, after losing her son to suicide. You will find a wealth of information and resources here.

Don't know much about mental illness? Learn about warning signs, mental health conditions, treatment, and more.

Are you a family member or caregiver? Learn about how to care for your loved one and yourself or get connected to a support group.

Do you have a mental illness? Learn more about your diagnosis, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and navigating challenges like medications or employment.

Need help for yourself or a family member? Try NAMI's HelpLine (Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm), see your doctor, or seek out a mental health professional in your area. 

Are you having suicidal thoughts, desires to harm yourself, or feel like you're at the end of your rope? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) now for 24/7, confidential support. If you are a friend or loved one of someone in crisis, you can also call the lifeline for help, or learn more on their website.

People of the Resurrection and the Nature of Hope

The world has finally come alive again. The trees are hazy green with infant leaves or laden with dainty blossoms of pink and white. I could smell their syrupy perfume on the breeze last night long after darkness hid them from view. The grass pulled color from the earth seemingly overnight, and its thick blanket beckons picnic blankets and bare toes. There’s a steady stream of faces passing our house these days, people out for a run, out with the kids, freed from hibernation. It’s glorious. 

We knew it was coming. We knew winter couldn’t last forever. But every year here, the life and newness and beauty still astound me when spring finally arrives.

I’ve been talking to a good friend lately about the nature of hope. We both have found adulthood breaking and reshaping our understanding of it. The problem is we have so many varying definitions and pictures of it. (And yes, this is true even amongst Christian circles.) Some turn hope into sheer optimism or wishful thinking. It becomes a blind sheen of positivity that yells “it’s only a flesh wound” even after it’s reduced to a limbless stump (Monty Python, anyone?). Some use hope to fuel dualism, ignoring our present physical reality in favor of a detached, spiritual plane. Some have adopted hope as a spiritualized mind-over-matter technique. 

I believe all of these fall short of the biblical picture of hope. Biblical hope is deeply rooted and has radical implications for our present reality. Biblical hope does not remove us from our circumstances or numb us to them, but it does give us solid ground and a steady anchor so we can endure faithfully. 

Back in the not-so-long-ago depths of winter, would the reality of a spring day like this one have removed our “pain”? In many ways, no. My nose would still have been cold and perpetually running. I would still have bundled up, covered with hat and gloves and scarf. We still would have groaned when we saw the next blizzard coming, and the next, and the next. The promise of spring would not have stilled the nor’easter winds or kept the power on, and it would not have kept my house warm. The days would still have been short, the darkness long. We still would have done the heavy-lifting of shoveling out the car and the sidewalk, still scraped layers of ice off the windshield. We had a sure hope that spring would come, but it did not remove this “pain,” nor did it cure our collective seasonal affective disorder. 

But it did keep us moving. It promised us that one day the snow would melt, the sun would return, that what we saw was not the whole of reality. So we did not give into despair. Spring did not make winter any shorter, but it did promise us that if we could make it a few more months, a few more weeks, a few more days, everything would change. And that hope did not disappoint us. 

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When our Lord Jesus suffered, he endured, the Bible tells us, for “the joy set before him.” He endured in hope, but his hope was not an anesthetic. He knew what was to come, of his victorious resurrection, but the “cup” was still bitter. He was rejected by those he loved. He was betrayed and abandoned by those he trusted. He stretched out in the dark of Gethsemane, crying as he submitted to the will of his Father. He was tempted to the uttermost. His body was beaten, broken, bled-out. His was one well acquainted with suffering and familiar with grief. He truly and genuinely suffered. His hope, his confident child-like trust in his Father, his surety in his ability to keep his promises, enabled him to endure suffering faithfully. And that hope did not disappoint him—it was fully realized when the breath returned to his lungs, and he emerged from the tomb victorious and alive.

The entire cosmos is groaning through the last dregs of "winter," longing for the full restoration of the New Heavens and New Earth. We, like Jesus, do not escape the suffering of the world we live in. Our bodies still break. Our relationships still strain. Our dreams bitter with disappointment or disillusionment. We continue to shake off the entangling grasp of sin. We still cry, “How long, O Lord?” 

But we have a sure hope, a hope inherently tied to the Resurrection of Jesus. This hope does not remove us from pain or answer all of our questions, but it does enable us to endure. It stands defiantly in the places of brokenness, those places which fall prey to the ragings of, as the old liturgies said, “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” and it boldly declares “This is not all there is. This is not the end.” 

It’s the hope that brings tears springing to my eyes when we sing Sandra McCracken’s words: 

We will feast in the house of Zion. 
We will sing with our hearts restored.
He has done great things, we will say together.
We will feast and weep no more.

We are not only people of the Cross. We are people of the Resurrection. We wait, and sometimes we weep. But we wait and endure in hope. And this hope will not disappoint us.