Sermons

Connection and Belonging: A Message for Mental Health Awareness Sunday; Rev. Dee Ledger; May 16, 2021

How are you?

No, really…how has your mental health and well-being fared over the past year?   It would not be unusual if you were to admit that your mental health has suffered from the pandemic and the hardships of the past year.  Fear, isolation, job loss, illness, loss of health care, grief, and general uncertainty have all had an impact of people who might have been doing fairly well pre-pandemic.

For those who had mental health conditions pre-Covid, the impact of the pandemic has made life even tougher as they navigate uncertainty, the loss of routines, an inability to gather, and the effects of job insecurity or financial loss.  In addition, for some who have experienced Covid, there have been documented studies showing that 1 in 3 people infected with Covid suffer long-term neurological and psychological effects in the months following infection.[1]  Covid infections can affect mental health in the long term.

Indeed, many of us have had to cope with the loss of intimacy, of regular touch and hugs, particularly those who live alone.   Our children have had to cope with the loss of regular playmates; my two sons have not had any “friends” of their age to play with in-person during most of the pandemic.  Their social interactions have been primarily with each other and me, reminding me of those frontier families years ago who lived several days journey from their closest neighbors.  Except that we live in an urban area and none of this has been normal.

Numerous sources have said that the effects of the pandemic may be long-term and take quite a while to diminish. In one survey by the US Census Bureau in December, more than 42% of those surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.  The previous year, that number was only 11%.[2]   Clinical psychologist Luana Marques, at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, monitors the mental-health impacts of the crisis in US populations and elsewhere.  She has remarked, “I don’t think this is going to go back to baseline anytime soon.”[3]

As the United States begins to open up, and as people return to church in-person, how might the church be a healing presence in these times? Consider how the church might be a mental health advocate in our ministry not only with each other, but also with our neighbors and friends who may be anxious and reluctant to “return” with lingering psychological trauma from the pandemic.  Social skills may have deteriorated.  Parents may wonder how their children will interact.  The more introverted person and socially anxious might be concerned about mingling with larger numbers of people after a long time away.

Because the church must always attempt to welcome and integrate those who struggle with or suffer from various conditions, we might become purposefully aware of the toll that the pandemic has wrought on our collective and individual mental health and find intentional ways to address that.  How might we help others to cope with transitioning from a year of isolation to more social contact in safe, predictable, and comforting ways?

Consider how we might help others to find meaning in their difficulties by purposely diminishing the stigma attached to mental health concerns.  Our own willingness “to talk about pandemic effects” and our desire to overcome them can serve as a model for the church.  By creating an intentional safe space to talk with each other, and by purposely talking about the effects of the pandemic on our own mental well-being and health through testimony, we might encourage others to share their struggles to regain equilibrium.

In addition, we might want to examine some of our biblical texts to see how our spiritual ancestors approached mental health. In our scripture for today, King Saul’s attendants notice that he has an evil spirit tormenting him.  We are told that this evil spirit is from God.  At first, that might be hard to understand.  But our spiritual forebears linked all things as being derivative of God.  The biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann,  has said, “It may trouble our positivistic minds that the disorder of Saul is attributed to an evil spirit, and it may trouble us more that the evil spirit is credited to God. We must remember that the world of biblical perspective is a world without secondary cause. All causes are finally traced back to God who causes all, who ‘kills and brings to life’. This narrative simply assumes that the world is ordered by the direct sovereign rule of God. All spirits that beset human persons are dispatched from this single source …. [4]

So, this evil spirit that torments Saul is part of God too, though it might be hard for our modern minds to understand.  And we can argue with this “God-as-source.”  However, it is important to note that this evil spirit is NOT God’s punishment on Saul, even though Saul has made mistakes and errors like all human beings.  As one commentator has written, “In the broadest sense, God is responsible for Saul’s evil spirit, as God is responsible for sunrises, hurricanes, or oil spills: God is the creator and sustainer of the universe; all causes originate in God.[5]

Scripture thoroughly describes the story of Saul’s decline as King and David’s rise to power.  We learn quite a bit about Saul as a King and how he suffers from jealousy and insecurity, in addition to this evil spirit.  As his power declines, his mental suffering and ability to cope with the pressures of his kingship seems to get worse.  Yet, here in scripture we have a remarkable picture of how the king’s attendants minister to Saul’s tormented spirit.  They do not abandon him or assume that the evil spirit will “go away” of its own accord.

The prescription is music—specifically, instrumental music on the lyre (or harp) played by a young man by the name of David.  David, who had been tending sheep, is hired to play the lyre for Saul when Saul is in distress, thereby applying music therapy to psychological distress.  And our story says that when David played, the evil spirit would leave Saul.

For those who find comfort in music, this year has been particularly hard with the restrictions and safeguards against singing.  We’ve had to find other ways to enjoy music together in worship.  Nevertheless, we might consider how we might utilize music to safely engage others again in group fashion, particularly those who have not been able to make music for some time.  Might we consider having favorite hymn Sunday?  Might we consider organizing a trip to a music hall as a social event of the church?  Might we consider hosting a concert of instrumental music here?  Might we find ways to unite musicians and instrumentalists with an audience who are yearning to experience its healthy effects live and in-person again?  Perhaps, we cannot sing, but we can invite, publicly sponsor, and pay instrumentalists to play for those who are worn out and weary as part of our mental health gift to the Bethesda community and to each other.

For many of us, the tendency is to isolate ourselves when we are in distress.  Over time, this can become a destructive habit.  Many of us who were regular churchgoers pre-pandemic have enjoyed being able to join church via Zoom or to watch a pre-recorded broadcast when it was not safe to gather in-person.  More than once, I have ventured downstairs in my slippers to attend worship virtually.

At BUCC, we do not want to lose the ability to worship via Zoom, particularly those who struggle right now for various reasons to come to church.  However, we might want to consider ways to encourage people to visit in- person with each another after church service in small groups and to begin to accompany one another again with regular in-person contact.  Remember, Saul was encouraged not to self-isolate when he was in distress through the presence of David.  Likewise, when the prophet Elijah is tempted to sit under a broom tree and pray that he might die, the Lord comes to him and asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and sends Elijah back the way he came with a mission and a return to belonging.

We all need to belong.  Our “need to belong refers to the idea that humans have a fundamental motivation to be accepted into relation-ships with others and to be a part of social groups. The fact that belongingness is a need means that human beings must establish and maintain a minimum quantity of enduring relationships.”[6]

Which of your “enduring relationships” have suffered this past year?  How might you restore them to more-normal levels of engagement and interaction?

The habit of isolation can undermine both belonging and the return of spiritual health and well-being.  Furthermore, Rev. Michael Tanner writes, “stigma aggravates the inherent isolating effects of mental illness and thereby perpetuates itself, for stigma feeds on isolation. Contact is the most effective remedy for stigma…”[7]

Siblings in Christ, we need each other to nudge connection, belonging, and participation in the larger group.  We need to nudge ourselves and each other to reach out after a long absence.  Like Elijah, like Saul, our ability to belong has been disrupted by distress, by diminished mental health, by habits of isolation, and by fears of the pandemic’s power to reassert itself in our lives.  The challenge before us is how to encourage a community of people to slowly and safely gather together after we have formed the habit of isolating and distancing ourselves.  Our regathering with each other won’t happen entirely naturally, some encouragement and generous prompting are necessary after such a long hiatus “away.”

Friends, remember those attendants of Saul?  They sought out a remedy to alleviate his distress.  What remedies do we already have at our disposal to help us alleviate the mental health burdens and effects of this past year?  What resources might we seek out?  How can we increase both connection and belonging in this hybrid, diminishing pandemic world?  Our collective and individual mental health just might depend on our answers to those questions.

[1] Ernie Mundell and Robert Preidt, “1 in 3 Have Neurological, Psychiatric Problems Post-COVID,”
HealthDay Reporters, April 7, 2021 (HealthDay News) https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20210407/1-in-3-covid-survivors-have-ongoing-mental-health-issues#1

[2] Alison Abbott, COVID’s Mental-Health Toll: How Scientists are Tracking a Surge in Depression, Feb 3, 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00175-z

[3] Ibid.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, ed. James Luther Mays and Patrick D. Miller, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1990), 125.

[5] “King Saul and the Stigma of Madness, “The Rev. Michael A Tanner, Independent Study: Disability & Theology, School of Theology, University of the South. 20 August 2010. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/584191b49de4bb461ebf5e87/t/593acbede4fcb559168befe6/1497025526200/KingSaulAndTheStigmaOfMadness.pdf

[6] http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/interpersonal-relationships/need-to-belong/#:~:text=The%20need%20to%20belong%20refers,minimum%20quantity%20of%20enduring%20relationships.

[7] “King Saul and the Stigma of Madness, “The Rev. Michael A Tanner, Independent Study: Disability & Theology, School of Theology, University of the South. 20 August 2010. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/584191b49de4bb461ebf5e87/t/593acbede4fcb559168befe6/1497025526200/KingSaulAndTheStigmaOfMadness.pdf