Fifteen years ago today I almost took my own life. I was in the middle of a “major depressive episode,” and got some really bad news from our insurance company. Because that is how fragile we are sometimes. The deeply spiritual and reflective times of life (like Good Friday) are often interrupted and derailed by the very human and earthly things of life. So it was that I was ready to kill myself, in between our noon and evening services. I was a pastor, after all.
Wait a minute. Christians don’t do that! Pastors don’t do that? Why would you come so close to throwing your life away? After all, since Jesus died and rose again from the dead, aren’t you supposed to be happy as a Christian?
I’ve written about this event many times before (see HERE, and HERE, for example). It was a defining event for me as a Christian, as a husband and father, and as a pastor. So every year I seem to come back to it and ask some of these questions again.
Human beings are body and soul. I don’t have a body or have a soul. I am ME, body and soul together. Any attempt to try to rip these apart inevitably ends up in either gross materialism or dualism. If I am only the material, the physical, then I am no different from animals, or plants, or even the earth itself. Death is my end, and there is nothing beyond it. At the same time, if my soul and body are separated, with the soul being the “real” me, then this physical world doesn’t really matter at all. If that is the case, my body becomes the enemy, trapping me in this world until I die.
So when the body suffers, the soul suffers with it. When I am in physical distress from sickness or injury or whatever it might be, that changes me as a human being. It affects my soul, my faith, my life before God, and my neighbor. And in the same way, my spiritual state changes my body. We are together, forever linked. This is only of the many reasons why we confess in the Creed that we believe in the “resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.”
When the brain is broken, or strained, or (to use the very technical term) “out of whack,” then both the body and the soul are impacted. That is what makes mental illness so insidious and evil. Because the dopamine in my brain is not working right, and my serotonin levels are not properly regulated, my capacity for thinking AND feeling, AND doing are all messed up. Unraveling spiritual distress from physical ailments is sometimes nearly impossible. Where does one start and the other end? How can I tell? It comes to the point when we can confess with St. Paul, “who can deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) While St. Paul meant it in connection with his own struggle against sin, the same can be applied to our struggle against the consequences of sin.
It is for all these reasons that caring for those with mental illness is so very hard, so much work, and can involve heartache and frustrations galore. Sometimes you can’t see the way out, and all you can do is keeping going through it with them.
For my own story, there were three people in particular who went through this with me. Well, there were many more than three, but three that always come to the forefront for me.
The first is my wife. At the time of this event, we had three small children, one who was just weeks old at the time. Neither of us knew anything about mental illness. It was the scariest time of our lives, and she had to take care of our children, work, keep the house together, and somehow take care of me. I will never understand how she did it all.
The second is my pastor. He stood by me through so many dark hours, conversations of despair, and brought Christ through it all. He didn’t try to be what he wasn’t. He was my pastor, and he was my friend. I will never understand how he did it all.
The third is my counselor. I didn’t really even know I needed one until a couple of months before this incident. She brought compassion, listening ears, counsel, and wisdom in a way that is truly remarkable. The added bonus was that she was also a Christian, and a Lutheran no less. That allowed her to be my counselor and NOT my pastor. I will never understand how she did it all.
What does all of this mean? It means that caregivers are what keep the world going around. Make no mistake about it. A spouse, a friend, a nurse, a doctor, a pastor, a child, a father or mother, a teacher, a deaconess, all of these and more are the ones who are on the front lines of bringing Christ to a broken and suffering world each and every day. We need you, every one of you.
God is merciful. I didn’t die. And for fifteen years, God has graced me with being a husband, a father, a pastor, and in some cases, a pastor to pastors. Sometimes I will be asked why I’m willing to help broken people. The answer is that I was helped when I needed it most. I still am. If God can use me to offer some comfort or care to one who suffers, then to Him alone be all glory.
Fifteen years of grace. Well really, fifty years of grace. And it isn’t ending anytime soon.