When I was about 8 years old, my family – five of us at that time plus some cousins – went to the Smithsonian Institution. Specifically the National Museum of American History. At that time we lived in nearby Bethesda, MD, so we’d already seen the impressive monuments in Washington, but this was our first time going to one of the big museums.
The whole gang of us parked, walked, and entered the massive building. Right away we saw the Star Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what would become our national anthem. Honestly, I don’t remember much else about what we saw, the miles of corridors we walked. Except for the exhibit of First Ladies dresses, that enthralled me. All the different styles from very old to modern! The fabrics! The gloves! These were unlike any dresses I had ever seen in person. But I was sure I would wear something that elegant one day. To a ball, perhaps.
I walked from one inauguration gown to another. There were so many. And then I had seen them all and looked around for the next exhibit…and where was my family?
They were not there. Or in the next room. Or the next. I don’t remember being afraid – although I might have been. It was just confusing to be in a maze of rooms and halls. No matter where I turned I had no idea where I was. All I knew was that I was alone. My heart was troubled.
Eventually I found a security guard and told him I was lost. He told me to follow him and we went back to the entrance where I stood next to a different guard. Together we watched people coming and going and chatted a bit. I got the feeling I was not the first lost child he supervised.
After quite a while, I heard my mom call my name and she ran across the hall to hug me. Reunited! Everything was back to normal again.
(Of course when this happened, I only thought about what I experienced. With hindsight, I can imagine what my parents and siblings were thinking! It is never an easy thing to manage multiple children in an unfamiliar museum.)
I think of this story often because it is a good memory – of my getting so absorbed in the exhibit, of being cared for by strangers (I have to admit I felt important standing next ot the guard at the door,). Mostly I love the part about being found.
Today I think of this story because being lost is a great metaphor for what mental illness is like for many people. It certainly is for me. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a good time to consider what life is like for people who live with mental illness, as well as what our faith has to say about it.
Stories of being lost and found, of having a place to BE are central to my faith tradition. They are often the themes of parables or the great narratives of our ancestors. Being lost and found is a great way to think about our relationship to the God who created and loves us.
John’s gospel tells a story about Jesus telling his disciples that he will soon leave them, and not in a pleasant way. They’re not too keen on the idea.
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
For many, mental illness feels like a troubled heart. It can feel like not fitting in or not feeling at home anywhere. It can feel like the disciple Thomas might have felt when he tried to understand where Jesus was going. Jesus said to him, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas then asked, “How can we know the way?”
One in five of us will experience mental illness in a given year – sometimes it is an episode brought on by trauma or a specific event. For others it is chronic and managed over a lifetime.
And if 20% of us HAVE a mental illness, you can do the math and realize that almost all of us know it through someone we love. If you think you don’t, you do now. I have depression. So now you know someone with a mental illness.
Despite being so common – and in many cases very treatable – these illnesses carry a lot of stigma. What that means in practical terms is that people either isolate themselves out of shame that they are crazy, lazy, or incompetent. Or they are isolated by others because they are judged to be scary, weird, or immoral.
What ends up happening in way too many cases is that people feel like like a kid lost in a museum – not sure if they wandered away or were abandoned, but either way they are in an unfamiliar place with no idea how to get un-lost.
If you’ve ever felt that way, you are not alone.
Think of all the people in your life who might feel this way – people with depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, PTDS, schizophrenia…
Think about people who’ve faced violence or poverty or abuse, which can cause trauma…
Think about people who are isolated due to illness or disability or language barriers…
Think of all the people who care for them.
All of them feeling lost and without a place to be at home.
All of them with troubled hearts.
This kind of feeling might apply to a group of disciples who just found out their friend and teacher is about to be betrayed and is going to leave them.
We have hope. We are not forever lost. In my tradition, Jesus tells us that God has a place for us and that place is in the very life of God with all of God’s other beloved children.
Jesus tells his troubled disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
Jesus’ friends have troubled hearts, and Jesus offers them the comfort of togetherness, of being in a big house with room prepared just for them.
It is important to notice the order of events here –
We are lost and God comes to us
We suffer – Jesus suffers – and then we have a home in God.
God goes through our traumas with us. With our depression and alcoholism and mood disorders and grief. And on the other side of all that is not isolation, but a home together.
There will be a place for you. There is a place for you.
The relationship with God is ongoing through suffering to the other side. God comes to us in the midst of our lives and carries our entire, broken selves into God’s own life. Into God’s House.
Imagine your life as being like a big museum and you feel lost wandering the halls and rounding the corners. You keep hoping to see a familiar face or to even know where you are.
Imagine a helper who stands with you while you wait, is present with you so that you are not alone.
And imagine being found! Having the God who loves you run across a big empty hall to embrace you like my mom did when she found me.
God is faithful to us. God is faithful to you.
When you feel isolated – either because you are pulling back from others or feel they are pulling back from you – please know that there is a room for you in the very life of God.