How to respond when your heart is heavy

My heart has been heavy lately.
I have been feeling a deep heaviness for the trouble around us:
-the hateful killings that took place on Sunday in Orlando
-the cases of sexual assault where justice seems allusive
-the confusion around what it means to welcome and care for refugees and newcomers
-the profound sadness that seems to have entrapped some First Nation communities
-the silence or confused response of many Christians and churches

I’ve been trying to work through what I, what we, are supposed to do with such heaviness and trouble. I don’t know about you, but I find it especially hard when it seems so overwhelming and confusing, it is easy to get stuck in doing nothing, saying nothing. Here’s how I’m working it through. By the way, I also think this same process and advice can be used in helping youth and kids work through these tragedies they are hearing about in the news and from people around them.

1. Permission to scream – As this heaviness has been building, one day this week, I recognized I just had to scream. I just had to say it out loud – this is sad, this is not right, this is awful. Name it. Call what is unjust, unjust. Call wrong, wrong. Don’t be afraid to say 49 people were killed and many more wounded on Sunday and that is deeply wrong. One of the things I appreciate about the Psalms, a book of poetry in the Bible, is it is a record of people screaming at God. It is people’s unfiltered sadness, anger and confusion poured out to God. And they are not reprimanded for it, not at all, instead we celebrate the Psalms and the range of human emotions expressed to God. To borrow Eugene Peterson’s phrase, we need to learn to “cuss without cussing”, pouring out our screams to God. Rather than getting angry with others or letting my frustration come out at work, I’m learning to bring my unfiltered thoughts and emotions to God. What makes you want to scream? Have you told God?

2. Feel – I’ve been reflecting this week on the question “Who is my neighbour?” The clearest answer I can come up with is “The one who needs mercy.” Hmmm…I can think of a huge list of people that need mercy. And “When am I being neighbourly?”, the answer “When I show compassion and mercy.” One day a man asks Jesus a very religious question “How do I inherit eternal life?” In other words – “Who is out and who is in, and am I in?” This man wants to justify himself – he wants the lines to be clear and the fences to be high. I can think of some people and groups who have responded that way in the last week. Jesus answers with a very non-religious answer, with an extremely practical answer, the story of the good Samaritan – a person who felt compassion for another and acted. The key phrase is “he felt compassion.” No qualifiers about the person who is in trouble matter. In fact, we find out the good Samaritan was considered an arch enemy, so it doesn’t matter if the person is your arch enemy…you show mercy. The essential point is – he felt compassion and acted. Exercise your compassion muscles. Feel compassion for people and their stories. If you need to understand more of their story and the injustice they face, in order to feel compassion, take the time to hear their stories. All we hear in the news and watch on Netflix can numb us from the emotion, the real people, the real stories, the real feelings behind any event. Allow yourself to feel compassion and be moved by compassion. What are the emotions, the stories behind what is happening?

3. Act out God’s heart of compassion – there is a profound moment that has stuck with me from one of the most tragic seasons in my life. It was a season when it truly felt like evil was winning all around me. In our little community we were surrounded by fresh stories of tragedies – teen suicide, teens in a tragic car accident, stories of sexual abuse, and stories of corruption of those who were supposed to help. One morning, while on a youth retreat, I woke up super early. I was scheduled to speak that morning to the youth and I told the Lord “I can’t do it. I won’t do it. I got nothing here. Evil is winning.” I followed my own advice above – I screamed at the Lord, I deeply felt the hurt that was being caused to people, to families, and to a community. Just when I thought God would give me encouragement and a hug from heaven, I very strongly sensed the Lord saying “Renée, I’ve got the victory here, now act like it.” It changed my whole perspective around. I’d be acting like evil was winning. The truth is, evil does not win. Christ wins – love wins, compassion wins, forgiveness wins, justice wins. So, I started acting like Christ’s victory was real (because it is). I acted out of Christ’s compassion, love, healing…even though it might look like another way is winning. The first thing I did was to start to cook an over-the-top, lavish breakfast for the youth, to start to show radical kindness. We must tangibly show the alternative to the way of hate and division by tangibly showing the way of kindness and love. The best thing you can do in the face of the tragic events happening in our world – act out God’s heart for compassion and justice now. In the midst of the tragic events of Sunday we are also hearing stories of people who acted on compassion – Chick-fil-A opening on Sunday to provide meals, people rushing into danger to help others, people opening their homes and churches for people to grieve, people lining up to give blood. How could you tangibly show God’s radical kindness, mercy and love?

4. It is not our role to condemn the world. Love your neighbour – Christians, you are not the conscience of the world, of your neighbours. Your role is not to point fingers, it is not to condemn. Jesus reserved the strongest words about hell, about judgment for those who claimed they were on the “inside” of religion and thought they had it all figured out. To those considered “outside” he spoke of heaven, the Kingdom and went out of His way to spend time with these people considered outsiders. We seem to have gotten it backwards – we point fingers at those “outside” and turn a blind-eye to those “inside”. There is not an “us” and “them.” For God so loved the world, all of the world… God shows mercy. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17) God’s agenda isn’t condemnation, it is redemption, it is offering people a place in His family through what He has done. It is God’s Spirit that convicts not your pointing finger. I came to Christ, not because people pointed out all the ways my life was falling short of God’s best ways, but because people loved me well and displayed to me God’s radical, deep love. No one had to point out to me my sin, God pointed that out to me, and continues to do so, as I need to deal with things in my heart and life. We cannot hold non-Christians to Christian standards and we shouldn’t try to in the least. What if Christians, what if churches, loved people, loved their neighbours radically well? Who is the neighbour? – the one who shows mercy. Would your neighbours miss you or your church if you moved? Where could people point to your life, your church and say “WOW! That’s mercy!”?

How will you respond personally to these steps in your life?
How can you lead your church/group through these steps?
Find ways for you, and your church to scream at injustice, feel other’s stories, act in-line with God’s Kingdom and love your neighbour.

Here is a related previous post I wrote after the Paris attacks, in it I consider the “weapons” we have for peacemaking in this world: https://oneneighbourhood.org/2015/11/19/power-of-flowers-and-candles/

-Renée
@r_embree  #1neighbourhood

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Only One Life – Responding to Physician Assisted Death

As we continue our hot topic series on the blog, I am pleased to have Lois Mitchell as our guest blogger today. Lois is the Director of Public Witness and Social Concerns at the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches and the Director of International Studies at St. Stephen’s University. Lois has helped leaders, churches and myself personally, wrestle with numerous issues of our day. I appreciate Lois’ heart that seeks to find the middle-way, the Jesus way, of both grace and truth.
In the news recently we have been hearing a lot about physician assisted dying. Lois helps us look at this hop topic from a fresh perspective.
Here is Lois:

We only have one life. At least that’s what the bible says. Hebrews 9:27a (GNB) says simply, “Everyone must die once.” It’s pretty straightforward. One life. One death. But there is more. Death is not the end. It’s not the period at the end of the sentence, but a comma that marks the transition between this life and the next phase of eternal life. The grave is not the end. Life. Death. Life.

At this point I could go in different directions with this post. But I’ll get right to the point. I don’t want to talk about life or death, or life after death. I want to focus on the intersection of our earthly life and death – the comma. We’re all going to be there someday – even now, we’re approaching death (or, I suppose, some might think of it more as waiting as death approaches us).

I imagine that we’ll all have lots of opportunities to think about death as we watch loved ones get old and die or get sick and die or die suddenly and unexpectedly in accidents or other tragedies. Death is inevitable and unavoidable. And it’s hard, however it happens, to lose people we love, no matter the circumstances.

Life and death don’t happen in a vacuum. Every birth and every death has repercussions. We are part of a social fabric. Every thread contributes to a beautiful and dynamic whole. WE are part of a tapestry. Every one of us is woven in, held in place by the lives of those around us.

You may have heard that the Government of Canada has introduced legislation to make physician-assisted suicide/death legal. Bill C-14 was introduced in the House of Commons on April 14, 2016. I won’t go into detail about what it says or how we have come to this point in Canada. What fascinates me is public opinion on the concept of physician-assisted death (note that until the last year or so, we talked about physician-assisted SUICIDE but now it appears that the more polite term is physician-assisted death – hmm, interesting).

Those that think it’s a good idea to allow doctors to help people end their lives, usually offer four general arguments (AND PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM NOT PROMOTING THESE ARGUMENTS; QUITE THE OPPOSITE, SO READ ON!):

1. Quality of Life – In our secular society there is a sense that we all deserve to be “happy” and being happy implies that we have a right to live and die as we wish (without, by the way, regard for how our decisions affect other people). Unhappiness can come from all different sources – we might be disabled or sick or sad or depressed or in chronic pain. And if any of this diminishes our quality of life, well… there’s no sense carrying on. Might as well just end it and be done with it. No one should have to live if they don’t want to.

2. Dying with dignity – If a person is not mentally competent or physically able to care for him/herself, they no longer have dignity and every effort should be made, even before they get to that state, to allow them to “die with dignity”. In our individualistic, rights-based society, independence is seen as a personal and social good. It is undignified to be dependent on others, and especially to depend on them for our basic, personal care. In fact, we tend to see dependence as weakness and thus, for those who have become dependent through age or mental or physical infirmity, it is assumed that life can no longer be good.

3. Avoidance of suffering – suffering is something to be avoided if at all possible. No one wants to suffer. And why should we? If a beloved pet is sick or old and can’t be cured, we see it as the compassionate thing to do to put it out of its suffering. Why should we treat our loved ones any differently? And suffering comes in all kinds of forms. If life is unbearable for any reason, the compassionate thing to do is to help people end the suffering.

4. Caring for others is burdensome – we lead busy lives. When people can’t look after themselves, they’re a burden and we don’t have time for burdens. There are institutions to look after burdensome people. Modern medicine has actually prolonged the dying process and that’s a burden for all of us. Why should we strive to keep people alive if they’re going to die anyway? No need to feel guilty about it. No one really wants to be a burden.

Maybe this all sounds reasonable to you. It’s what secular society has been telling us and now polls show that the majority of Canadians agree with this line of thinking. It sounds sensible. It seems right. But it’s a lie. No matter how many people agree with it, it’s still a lie. Here’s what the bible says:

• we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-7);
• human life is a sacred gift – God created us – he knew us before we were born; he knit us together in our mothers womb (Psalm 139:13);
• our life is not our own and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 6:19-20);
• nowhere does Jesus tell us that life will be easy. In fact, He says in John 16:33 that in this world we will “have trouble”. Hebrews 12:1 tells us to “run with perseverance [or determination] the race that is set before us.” Jesus doesn’t promise to remove every obstacle and hardship, but to be with us as we face the troubles of life;
• caring for one another is at the heart of the Christian life (Matthew 22:36-40).

These are really just a few thoughts – a few scratches on the surface – of a profound theological perspective, which has often been silenced by the seductive and deceptive voices within our cultural narrative that presume that God (if he exists at all) is irrelevant to the moral and social challenges of our time. We should not be fooled.

Apparently there are toxic plants that mimic edible plants – they look almost the same. But ingesting one is good for you; ingesting the toxic lookalike can be fatal. Secular arguments are often clever imitators of the wisdom of God, but they can be toxic and even fatal.

ON Feb. 5, 2016 – the day before the unanimous Supreme Court decision in favor of Carter in the case known as Carter vs. Canada – Raymond de Souza identified 3 revolutions in jurisprudence that would be made if the Court ruled in Carter’s favor:
a. Abandoning the legal principle that every life is always a good to be protected,
b. Embracing the idea that suicide is a social good, and
c. Removing the particular obligation of the law to protect the weak and vulnerable.

Delight in God and the gift of your one life to live. Care for your neighbours – the sick, the lonely, the dying… and resist the temptation to be swept along with pragmatic arguments that turn love and compassion upside down and inside out.

Feel free to add your comments for Lois, Andrew and I.
-Renée @r_embree
#1neighbourhood

doctor assisted death

Domestic Violence and the Witness of the Church

As we continue the hot topic series on the blog, I’m pleased to introduce you to our guest blogger for the day, Steve McMullin. Steve and I have been a part of the same church in Saint John, NB for eight years. I appreciate Steve’s careful research and teaching on relevant topics for the church, always with a Pastor’s heart. He faithfully invests in churches, leaders and seminary education. At Acadia Divinity College Steve is the Director of the New Brunswick Extension Program and Associate Professor of Evangelism and Mission. One of the courses he teaches is “The Church’s Response to Domestic Violence.” Steve’s actively involved in showing and telling the Good News in the neighbourhoods where he worships, lives, studies and plays. When Steve talks, I listen and I always go away richer. Today Steve will help us think about domestic violence and the witness of the church. Here’s Steve…

Domestic violence is a reality that many people do not like to talk about or even know about. But the reality is that thousands of people in Atlantic Canada live in abusive homes and experience physical and sexual violence at the hands of a spouse or dating partner. Many of those victims suffer in silence, afraid to let anyone know what is happening in their home. Many of those victims attend local churches but are afraid to ask for help. One of the ways that we can demonstrate the power of the gospel is by addressing the sinfulness of domestic violence in clear and in helpful terms, and by providing safe opportunities for victims to seek help.

When I talk with pastors and church leaders about domestic violence, I often hear one of two responses: 1) “Thank goodness there is no domestic violence in this congregation. The people at our church come from good Christian families” or 2) “I am afraid that there are people in our congregation who experience domestic violence, but I do not know what to do about it as a pastor or leader.” The sad truth is that even though there has been much progress in efforts to address and respond to domestic violence in society, the ability of local congregations to make a meaningful difference is often limited by ignorance and fear.

Domestic violence is unlike normal disagreements or conflicts in a home. The root of domestic violence is in the sinful desire of one person to use power to control someone else (such as a spouse or dating partner), and that power and control can be expressed in a number of ways, such as control over finances or friendships or behavior or decisions. As time goes on, emotional or financial abuse escalates to physical violence. Among Christian families, the abuser may seek to use the Bible or Christian marriage vows or access to spiritual resources as weapons to control. A victim may be told, “If you do not do what I tell you, I won’t let our children go to church on Sunday,” or a wife may be told that “the Bible commands that you submit to your husband” or, after a violent incident, the victim is told “you have to forgive me because that is what the Bible commands you to do.”

Research conducted by our Religion and Violence Research Team demonstrates that there are victims of domestic violence within our congregations. In some instances, abusers masquerade as committed Christians; in other cases victims come to our churches because they are seeking spiritual help and friendship in order to survive the violence they are experiencing. Knowing that congregations large and small include people who experience beatings and other forms of violence in their own homes should motivate us as Christians to care and to help.

That brings us back to the original problems: ignorance and fear. Some leaders do not respond because they think, “I don’t know for sure if anyone in our church is a victim of abuse” or they think “I am afraid that if I try to respond it will only make things worse.” When we suspect that someone is a victim of violence at home, we may even ignore troubling signs or try to convince ourselves that behaviours or attitudes we have seen are not a cause for concern.

Here are some practical ways that congregations can respond:

1. We can let victims know that they can ask for help and that they will be believed. That means talking about domestic violence in sermons, and discussing violence at home and dating violence in youth groups. Before addressing the topic, though, it is important to know the trained people in the community to whom people can be referred when they ask for help.

2. We can make the church a safe place for victims to worship and to find friendship and spiritual support. Jokes about wives or about gender or about violence are never appropriate in public or in small groups. Imagine being a victim of violence and hearing such things joked about in one’s church—it is devastating. Insist that the abusive spouse worship with another congregation until trained professionals agree it is safe for the abuser to return (which may never happen). Always consider the safety of the victim first because that is of first importance.

3. We can offer practical help. Pastors and youth workers and church leaders are not trained professional counsellors so they should not try to intervene themselves to stop the violence or to confront the abuser or to counsel the couple. Church leaders can and should find out what resources are available in the community and be prepared to refer victims or family members to the appropriate people. Make sure that leaders are familiar with the Religion and Violence e-Learning website: www.theraveproject.org).

4. We can provide real community. That means that the church must be taught to be a community that does not stigmatize people who have been victims or abuse or who come from abusive families. Divorced people and single parents who have left abusive relationships should not be treated as second-class church members but welcomed and affirmed and loved. They should not have to hide what they have experienced in order to be accepted.

5. We can offer spiritual nurture and guidance. This is what the church can do best: help adults and youth and children who have experienced violence at home to know Jesus better and trust him and find in him the love and the strength and the grace that they need in order to heal from their painful past. We can pray with victims, encourage them with scripture, and affirm their identity as part of God’s family.

When the church addresses a problem as serious and as pervasive in our society as domestic violence, it not only provides help and hope for victims and for their families, it also demonstrates to the surrounding community that we truly love our neighbours as ourselves and that our faith is more than our private beliefs or our meaningless talk. It shows that Jesus has changed our hearts to the extent that we care about all of the people that he cares about. In other words, it validates our witness. People will begin to listen to what we believe and to what we say about Jesus because they will see the reality of Jesus in our love for others.

Please feel free to leave comments or questions below.
Thanks so much to Steve for his help today and always!
-Renée @r_embree

LGBTQ: Is it possible to be welcoming, but not affirming?

There are three different views Christians have when it comes to LGBTQ individuals and relationships:
1. Christians that support same-sex marriage and relationships, believing God blesses these relationships.
2. Christians who promote celibacy for the same-sex attracted, believing acting on same-sex attraction is outside of God’s best and outside of God’s design for human flourishing.
3. Christians who believe identifying as LGBTQ is sinful and God can heal you of those attractions.

I recognize even stating these three positions could be seen as controversial and could evoke any one of the three groups to want to try to prove their view or rip apart the other views. However, it is not the theological or scientific debate I’m interested in here, today. We do need to examine these things from a Biblical and theological point of view and I encourage you to do that. Lots has been written on that (for a website that seeks to provide a place and logic for those that hold both view #1 and #2 go to: https://www.gaychristian.net/).

Here I want to push us beyond an abstract debate to think about how we, our churches, are treating real, live people in the LGBTQ community. If your church falls in or around #2 on the above list, how do you live that out with love, grace and truth?

Regarding #2, how can we be “welcoming and not affirming?” I know that is the lingo, for those that want to welcome those from the LGBTQ community, but do not want to affirm acting sexually on same-sex attraction. However, upfront, I want to say I do not like that language. We can affirm people even if we disagree with them. We can affirm people even if we don’t agree with everything they are doing. We can affirm LGBTQ as people, as beautiful creations of God, as important contributors to society, as family & friends, and as people with meaningful gifts. We do affirm people, even if we disagree with them or their behaviour all the time – think of parents with their kids, teachers with students, even a co-worker with a co-worker or a friend to a friend. However, I recognize for those who identify as LGBTQ this identity goes to the core of their being and anything short of fully embracing may feel like “not affirming” or rejection.

As much as I struggle with the language, it is the common language being used, so I’ll use it here. How do we be welcoming, but not affirming?

I must admit, I myself wavier between thinking, “It is possible, we can do this. Churches can fully welcome, even while not affirming” and then on the other side, I think “Can we, is it even possible?”
The signs of hope I see that tell me it is possible are the LGBTQ Christians who are faithfully seeking to follow God, are calling me to greater obedience to Christ in my own life, and have managed, sometimes against many odds, to find Christian community.

May I humbly suggest, recognizing I still have a lot to learn around this issue, some ways churches, church groups and Christian leaders, can be welcoming but not affirming to LGBTQ individuals and communities.

1. Make Jesus the main thing – make sure you are sending the message and creating the environment where anyone and everyone is welcome and accepted to come to your church/group to explore Jesus or pursue Jesus. We are offering Jesus, and inviting people to encounter the living God for themselves. Every one of us comes with messiness and needs a place to safely explore Jesus and pursue Jesus together.

2. Beautiful community – offer community and paint a picture of the kind of Jesus community you desire to be. Rather than making lists of what you are against and lists of exclusion, make long list of the kind of positive, life-giving community you desire to be. Describe the kind of supportive, loving, serving, diverse community you want to be. Describe the kind of characteristics you want to see in your community. We all need community and God uses community to transform us, as we build our lives together.

3. Make celibacy a viable option – Everyone needs places to belong and be known. We can live without sex, but we can’t live without intimacy. Are families adopting singles (heterosexual or homosexual) into their lives? Is your church really only catering to families or seniors, or are those that don’t fit that mould given places to be known and loved? Those in the LGBTQ community may have experienced rejection in their own nuclear families; giving people places to belong and be known can mean so much to them and all of us.

4. Paint a picture of the Kingdom – Call people to align their lives with God’s Kingdom. Jesus, by His Spirit transforms us from the inside, out. Jesus decides when and how to address different issues in each our lives. The call to follow Jesus involves each of us, daily, putting to death the things that are not of God’s Kingdom and resurrecting to life the things that are of God’s Kingdom and of life. There are many areas of life where we need to paint a picture of what it looks like to line-up our lives with God’s kingdom ways – our finances, relationships, time, rest, work, and our sexuality. Every one of us has areas of our lives where we still need God’s help and transformation. We can talk about God’s beautiful design for sexuality, and that some things (including pornography, affairs, pre-marital sex, acting on same-sex attraction etc.) are outside of God’s best, not because God is a kill joy but because He cares deeply for us and knows what is best for us and our flourishing.

5. Become friends – get to know someone who is LGBTQ or get to know the LGBTQ community. Seek to listen and understand their life and struggle, as a fellow human being. The statistics show those who identify as LGBTQ are at a greater risk of bullying and of suicide (See for example this CBC news article.) Churches, out of care for human beings, can seek to make society a safer, more welcoming place for those in the LGBTQ community. Churches can make sure LGBTQ have good access to mental health resources when they need these resources. Be a genuine friend, not making the LGBTQ person or community your project, but getting to know them as a fellow creation of God. Beyond just being ready to welcome LGBTQ, invite them into your circle.

6. How will you counsel? – Figure out what it looks like for you to walk with someone wrestling with their sexual identity or with same-sex attraction. Imagine the struggle of feeling same-sex attracted and not knowing where to turn. Imagine the struggle of feeling same-sex attracted and being in a church where you feel condemned. While same-sex attraction may not be your struggle, recognize we all have places where we struggle and need love, support, encouragement and help.
Towards this end, the tribe I am a part of, the Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches (CABC), is planning some resources to equip leaders:
• During the leaders track at Springforth this May 13-14, Sid Koop will be talking about how to walk with youth who are questioning their sexual identity.
• Currently a LGBTQ Working Group is working on a resource to help our churches and leaders around this topic. The plan is to have it done sometime in the fall. This resource will have three parts:
Part 1 – a brief theological understanding
Part 2 – an understanding of how we are to engage culture, as Christians, as churches
Part 3 – Table talks – the conversations regarding LGBTQ we need to be having around our tables – church leadership tables, youth leadership tables, camp and facility leadership tables and a shared table with the LGBTQ community
CYWC (Canadian Youth Workers Conference) this November 25-26, 2016 will have a number of sessions equipping leaders to help our youth with their sexual identity

We are seeking to join God in His work in our neighbourhoods – where we live, work, study and play. Your neighbours and mine are LGBTQ. Let’s be good neighbours.

Before you add a comment to this blog, I refer you back to the guidelines I laid out at the beginning of this hot topics series, on handling hot topics with grace and truth (Read it here). Let’s run our thoughts and comments through that grid.

Thanks for joining me on this journey.
Renée
@r_embree

Beautiful Minds, Fragile Minds – How churches can help destigmatize mental health issues

One of the most difficult funerals I ever led was for a bright, unique, creative, athletic, young lady who died way too soon. Falon died by suicide at the age of 14. The funeral home was filled to the brim with her friends in soccer jerseys. A number of Falon’s friends were wearing a tube sock with the toe cut-off, pulled onto their forearm, to honour her signature fashion statement.
She is not the only person I’ve known to die by suicide.
And she certainly is not the only person I know to struggle with mental health issues.

Our minds are both beautiful and fragile things.
Our minds need care, attention, and greater understanding.
Oh, how often we ignore the fragility of our minds, until they scream at us.
Oh, how often we ignore the fragility of others’ minds, blowing the person off.

Our churches can help people recognize the care and understanding our mind’s needs – and how beautifully interconnected we are as spiritual, physical, emotional and mental beings. However, it is all too common for churches and Christians to isolate the spiritual person from the physical, emotional and mental person. When we ignore the whole person, it is easy for people to assume certain parts of themselves either don’t matter or are unacceptable. We ignore the whole person to our peril.

Chances are you or someone close to you has struggled with mental health issues or mental illness.

20% of Canada’s Population lives with a mental illness.
More than 60% of people with mental health issues and mental illness will not seek the help they need, stigma is one of the main reasons.
In Canada there are 10 deaths by suicide per day.
Suicide is one of the top ten causes of death in Canada and suicide trends in youth and Aboriginal Canadians have reached epidemic proportions. Among those aged 15 to 24, it is the second leading cause of death next to accidents. Suicide and mental health are deeply connected; it is estimated that 90% of people who die by suicide were experiencing a mental health problem or illness.
These and many more helpful statistics can be found here: Mental health indicators in Canada 

This current blog series is on hot topics. I wrestled with which “hot topics” are the most important to write about over the next few weeks. As I thought about mental illness I wondered if it should still be considered a hot topic. That’s the trouble, isn’t it? It is still treated like a hot topic, perhaps especially in the church. Mental health issues affect so many of us, but the church is often silent. Many of us have been silent ourselves. I have had Pastors tell me not to bring up such difficult topics. There still seems, in some churches, to be a stigma around mental illness, an underlying current that “those people” aren’t quite right, or if they had more faith God would help them and heal them or it is just too complicated. Sometimes I think it’s not the stigma that is keeping church leaders silent, it is just a complete loss on how to help, or what to do!

I’m trying to take my own advice from last week, on helping church leaders engage hot topics with grace and truth (Click here to see last week’s blog). So let’s think about this topic from a few perspectives – God’s heart for the issue, personal experiences and where the church could be of help.

God’s heart – Take some time to examine God’s heart for humanity and especially for the struggling. What does God’s grace and truth look like to those struggle with mental health issues?
I truly believe God pays special attention to those struggling in their mind. In numerous ways they could be considered the “outcasts”, the “forgotten”, and the “needy” of our day. All groups whom Jesus had time, attention and much grace for, when He walked this earth.

I think of how tenderly God treated Elijah, when Elijah prayed that he might die (1 Kings 19:4). God did not ignore the issue, He did not deny how Elijah was feeling, He did not give Elijah a kick in the butt or lecture him and tell him to get going. God tenderly saw and cared for Elijah – attending to his spiritual, physical, emotional and mental needs. Wherever you are, whatever you are feeling, whatever you are going through – God sees you. God cares for you. God knows you are a whole person, intricately connected spiritual, physical, emotionally and mentally. God created all of you. God cares for all of you and me, and all of His creation. God deeply loves and cares for those struggling with their mental health.

Personal experiences – develop your empathy for mental health issues by listening to the stories of those who have struggled, particularly listen to stories from those who have felt they had to hide their issues in the church.

Mental illness and mental health issues have touched every family and friend group, mine included.
In fact, I personally went through a period of depression, brought on by unrelenting circumstances. It was like my mind and body started betraying me. I didn’t sleep for weeks on end, I couldn’t focus enough to finish reading a paragraph, I lost control of my emotions, I lost weight and I just felt done, I had no fight left. This was a major shift for someone that was usually driven, passionate and energized.
It was a couple of brothers and sisters in Christ that help me recognized what was happening and supported me in getting the help I needed.
Thankful, I haven’t gone back there, but I too have felt the stigma from folks in the church that even now seem to always see me as wounded or fragile because of that one season. Mercifully, for me, the season did not last long and the help I received slowly got be back to a healthy equilibrium.
That short, personal brush with depression has given me lots of compassion for those that struggle with mental illness or issues, especially when for them it is a life-long struggle to find a healthy equilibrium.
What about you – can you think of stories, people, that help you sympathize with mental health issues? Who could you invite to share their story with you?

It doesn’t matter if you are a leader in the church, it can affect you.
If doesn’t matter if you are a strong, devote Christian, mental struggles and illness can affect anyone.
It is the stigma and quick judgments that make it seem easier for people to hide their stories or issues.
Shame makes us all want to hide.
Shame says there is something deeply flawed and wrong about me.
When it is me that is the problem, I want to hide.
Shame, stigma, keeps things hidden, and keeps people from finding the support and help they need.

Where the church can help – break the silence

Church – has our silence contributed to the shame around mental health issues?
What about instead of adding to the silence and shame, we invited conversations about mental health? What about playing your part to destigmatize mental health issues?

Churches, let’s turn the shame to a loving embrace.
Churches, let’s turn on the grace for those struggling with mental illness.
Churches, let’s invite those with mental illness to find a safe place, to belong and to gain the courage to reach out for more support.

Let me take a moment to talk to those who are struggling with mental health issues directly – If you are struggling, there is hope. The way things are today are not the way things have to be forever. There are people that want to walk with you through this. Things really can get better. You are not alone. Reach out.
With help, you really can get to a better place, where each day is not such a struggle and you have a much better quality of life. It starts with reaching out for help. Talk to someone.

Churches, especially leaders, here is what I really want to say to you – please break the silence around mental illness. Walking in both grace and truth on mental health issues means a commitment to understanding more about mental health and having a desire to seek the best for those who are in your midst struggling with mental health issues.

Church leaders (volunteers and paid), here is what we can do:

1. Talk about it – Start the conversations in your communities. Talk about mental health and suicide prevention in youth group, from the pulpit, in small groups, in support groups… It doesn’t need to take over and be something you talk about all the time, but it needs to be talked about on a regular enough basis that people realize it is a safe place to be broken, it is a safe place to struggle with mental illness. Give up the façade that Christians have it all together. The Gospel doesn’t say we have it all together, it says we live in a broken, grieving creation, we are all broken, and in need of a Saviour to walk with us daily. Talk about signs and symptoms for mental illness, talk about where to find help, share stories of those that have found help, talk about God in the midst of deep, dark valleys, talk about the range of emotions and mental states we see in the different characters in the Bible and open the conversations about mental health issues.

2. Develop a network – figure out ahead of time who are the resources in your city/town for those struggling with mental health issues, include medical professionals and professional counsellors in your network. These can be people you ask for advice. When you need to refer someone struggling with mental health issues to more help, this network gives you a ready made list.

3. Learn – Take a mental health first aid course. I’m a firm believe that every Pastor and every youth leader should have mental health first aid training. Read and learn what you can about mental health issues. Some resources to get you started are at the bottom of this post.

4. Encourage friendships – those who are walking through a mental illness need others who will walk with them in unconditionally love. Care-givers also need support. Be a friend.

I am by no means a counsellor or an expert on mental health issues. I simply recognize, I, for one, as a leader in the church, can do something to break the silence around mental health issues and illnesses. Will you join in breaking the silence?
Will you raise conversations about mental health in the places where you have influence?

Renée
@r_embree

For further research and reading on this topic, here are a few suggestions.

For teen mental health issues three helpful websites are:
http://teenmentalhealth.org/
yoomagazine.net
• Kids help phone – http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx

For all:
• Canadian Mental Health Association https://www.cmha.ca/
• Mental Health Commission of Canada http://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/
• Mental Health First Aid – http://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.ca/EN/Pages/default.aspx
• Center for Suicide Prevention – http://www.suicideinfo.ca/
• Healthy minds Canada – http://healthymindscanada.ca/

Materials on mental health in the church, in particular:
• Rapha Network – http://baptist-atlantic.ca/our-convention/departments/public-witness-and-social/
• Book – “Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission” By Amy Simpson (IVP, 2013)

Mental-Health-Stats-york2015

Responding to hot topics with grace and truth

Over the next few weeks in the blog, Andrew and I will be tackling hot topics because we believe, as Christians, we do a disservice to society, to fellow Christians, to the young, old and in-between when we ignore issues. It can make Christians come across like we are in our own bubble, either arrogant or ignorant. Furthermore, it is not preparing youth or others to be in the real world, with a robust faith, for real life, with all its complexities and issues.

Now, I recognize I’ll be trudging into difficult territory and could get myself into trouble, with my employer, my family, my friends, my ministry, the church…
So why trudge into difficult topics?
Here’s my hope as we tackle tough topics the next few weeks:
• we will model what it looks like for Christians to engage controversial topics and culture with grace
• we will encourage Christians to talk to each other and those they consider “outside” their camp
• we will start building bridges across divides we have put up inside and outside the church

Tackling these hot topics is:
NOT about pontificating our view and waving fingers from the pulpit
NOT about putting up walls, divisions and barriers.

Tackling hot topics is about:
tearing down walls, divisions and barriers
getting out of your regular camp and getting to know other camps
learning to walk the ways of Jesus in an upside down world.
connecting with new neighbourhoods, pockets of society, and learning
trusting Jesus is big enough to handle all the complexity of our world

Jesus came full of both grace and truth (John 1:14).
We, Jesus’ followers, really can be full of both grace and truth. We are empowered by Jesus to live in this world, not be taken out of this world, by the filling of His Spirit of grace and truth.
I believe, we really can both embrace others and call one another to more in Christ.
Jesus did.
One case in point is the women caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Jesus stood up for her, clearly cared for her, loved her, silenced her bullies and with the foundation of such an embrace, invited her to leave her sin and find a new way. Jesus typically spent way longer on the first part of the conversation, showing love, acceptance and understanding than on the second part about leaving sin. The exception was with the Pharisees, the religious people that thought they already had everything all figured out. There, Jesus leapt to bold statements, pointing out the error of their ways. In the example of the women caught in adultery, we often want to leap to the second part of the conversation when we’ve barely introduced ourselves, and certainly not showed true welcome and hospitality. With this woman, Jesus spent most of the time showing that He was for her, not there to condemn her. Only when the crowd disappeared, did He invite her to leave her life of sin. He made this one statement when she already knew and felt his care and acceptance of her. How about you and me? Are we making sure people know of our care and acceptance, and of God’s care and acceptance through us, first and foremost? How do we engage hot topics both inside and outside the church with both grace and truth as Jesus did?

As we get started on this series of hot topic blogs over the next few weeks, I realize, I really need some guidelines for myself.
If you’re going to wade into these topics in your church or neighbourhood you need guidelines for this too.

1. Seek to understand – Try to understand the issue from all sides. Bring an attitude of discovery and curiosity to the topic and try to understand why people are on different sides of the controversy. Listening and showing respect goes a long way. Learn where and why Christians – born-again, Bible believing Christians – can be on all different side of the controversy. Before you respond, empathize. I think we worry if we empathize, if we show understanding for another “side”, people will assume we are believing that “side” fully. To empathize is to treat people as loved creations of God. We can empathize deeply with someone, their struggle, how they have been treated by the church, without even ever coming to agreement or disagreement on whatever the “issue” might be. Show and model empathy.

2. Teachability – Admit you don’t have it all figured out. Show humility. Be open to the idea that your conclusions might be faulty.

3. Examine your assumptions – Be careful not to assume where people or your congregation land on a certain issue. Most of our congregations have great diversity on issues and we must remember that in your congregation there will be people who are affected personally by any given issue. Furthermore, do not make leaps for people. Our minds can go from “if you believe this…” to “you must also believe that…” very quickly. That is unfair. Christians are terrible for this, people cross one theological “t” and then we assume we know what they believe about every issue because based on that “t” we’ve put them in a certain camp. Judgment destroys relationship. Judgment destroy further meaningful conversation.

4. Repent – Acknowledge where Christianity has gotten it wrong or been hurtful on the issue. Even if you disagree with someone or a group’s behaviour we, as Christians, have a lot to apologize for in terms of how Christians have treated people or people groups.

5. Create the environment – Create the right environment to talk about controversial issues. Know your audience and pick the right time, place, and environment to talk about these difficult issues. Most issues are better talked about one-on-one or wrestled with in small groups. If we talk about hot topics from the platform on Sunday it should be to provide permission to talk about the issues further and we should provide a setting for people to ask questions, challenge, and re-examine Scripture on the topic.

6. Attitude matters – If someone disagrees with you they are not a bad person, they simply disagree. In terms of our attitude we need to remember to show care for human beings over and above any issue or disagreement. We also must remember we are not to hold non-Christians to Christian standards. If our attitude is to learn and help others come to greater understanding of an issue, rather than converting people to our point of view, everyone will go away richer, regardless of who “wins”.

7. Fruit of the Spirit test – Do your conversations and presentation of the issue pass through the grid of the fruits of the spirit? As you’re engaging on this topic are you able to do it with God’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)?

8. Trust God to bring up truth – I have found God absolutely faithful to bring up Himself and His ways in conversations. As I enter into meaningful conversation with people or groups of people (e.g. a youth group), as we build trust and acceptance, God, in His timing, brings up the deeper issues, on both sides (!) and brings truth into the light. He is the faithful one, full of grace and truth.

There are no shortage of hot topics in the church. Let’s not pretend they are not there and not happening. Let’s engage with grace and truth. Let’s keep these guidelines in mind as we engage together around hot topics the next few weeks.

Help me out, will the guidelines I’ve laid out help? What would you tweak? What would you add?

-Renée
@r_embree