The point of no return

He was wandering across the checkout lanes
At the local Super Wal-Mart
With a look of concern on his face
As he looked across the carts
He was unaware of his condition
His pants were soaked and soiled
His only concern was to find his wife…
And surely she would come through soon
As I watched him move from lane to lane
My heart went out to this man
Who seemed not to know the state he was in
But had only one plan
I asked him if I could be of help
He said he didn’t think so
She would be coming through very soon.
And he wandered on down the row
I went to find a manager
Who could help him find his wife
But when we returned he had vanished
He was nowhere in sight
I still think about the old man not much older than myself
And wonder if he found her
And what it must be like
Not to know who you are
I cried many tears as I recalled
The empty look, the lack of concern
Unaware of the condition he was in
And for the mind that had grown dim
I wonder if I too will reach
That point of no return
The place where my only concern will be
Just to find the one I love

by Dwight Roth

Dwight Roth was brought up in a Mennonite preacher’s family in Masontown, Pennsylvania. During the past forty-five years, he has been a Mennonite church planter in Rocky Mount, NC, a pastor, schoolteacher, and Assembly of God elder. Presently he is retired and attends an independent church planting in Waxhaw, NC called Fellowship Church. 

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3 Ways to Be an Ally to People with Mental Illness In Your Church


Brain with mental health labels.

If you’ve ever struggled with a mental illness and heard people chime in with expressions like “you’ll get through this, just have more faith,” “God will never give you more than you can handle” or “you’re letting the Devil win by giving up” you’re not alone. I’ve heard those expressions, too, many times and each time the cringe lines on my face have grown deeper and deeper.

In light of May being Mental Health Awareness month, I’d like to offer a different approach. See, mental illness is a very real presence in the lives of many individuals. Perhaps more individuals than you even realize. I would even be so bold as to say that each one of our lives has been touched and affected by mental illness – either our own or that of a close friend or family member. Mental illness whether it be depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or a host of other disorders can often leave individuals and families devastated, broken, and at a loss of what to do. Additionally, the Church often further compounds the problem by insensitive remarks – sometimes meant with sincerity but said in the wrong way or at the wrong time. This creates confusion and chaos, for the very place that is meant to be a welcoming and inclusive environment often becomes a hostile and excluding reality.

In the paragraphs that follow, I’d like to offer an alternative approach. Although at present I have been enjoying relatively good health for the past 4 years, I, too, have had my struggles. I know the difficulty of getting out of bed on mornings when you have no strength to even take a shower let alone write a thesis. I know the pain of agonizing over small decisions for hours when your appetite has waned and I know all about dual diagnoses (when you thought one disorder was bad enough then *pow* here comes another). I’ve also learned over time that people connect to realness.

So, know that when I share these suggestions, they are shared straight from my heart. I don’t for a minute pretend to know everything about mental illness. There are various types of mental illness and definitely what works for one person may not work for another, but in general, here are three ways I think all churches (or other places of worship) can become better allies to our brothers and sisters who struggle with illnesses we cannot see and which we can hardly imagine (unless we ourselves are living in that reality).

1) Ditch the Clichés, Bring in the Truth

My former roomate one described clichés in this way: “they may not be helpful, but they are little things we say because we don’t know what else to say when the person is going through a difficult situation.” Here’s the thing: clichés may fill the awkward silence, but they rarely add anything of value to the conversation.

Oftentimes when someone is going through a difficult and painful situation they do not need to hear Bible verses taken out of context, feel good philosophies, or judgmental quips about how they simply need to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” or “snap out of it.”

Instead, what they need is love and support. They need to know that you are there and that you care for them. That you are going to be there no matter how challenging the situation becomes and that it isn’t going to be too much and if it does become too much that it is not because of you but because of the weight of the situation.

2) Time and Be Strategic About Your Visits – But Don’t Stop Visiting Altogether

When I was struggling with depression, the greatest show of friendship for me was in my former roomate who would visit me every so often. She would sit on my bed and talk to me for 2, 5, or 10 minutes. She would ask me how I was and she would pray with me, but she never overstayed her welcome. I would ask about her life, she would answer. I told her I didn’t want things to change between us in our friendship just because of what I was experiencing. I told her I still wanted to be there for her and pray for her, and she took me up on that offer. But she also didn’t overwhelm me with more strain and stress than I could handle.

When someone is going through a difficult patch in their life journey, it can often be an immense comfort to know that they are there and that they care. For me, it wasn’t about the words they said (I have long forgotten those), but the sacrifices they made in trying to invite me out, reading the Psalms or poetry while I nestled under blankets, or simply sitting at the edge of my bed while I cried. These are precious moments I will always cherish with me – even though now I am in better health.

3) Resist the Temptation of Thinking the Person is Lazy – Be Empathetic and See Things From Their Point of View

Depression is a thick fog. If you’ve never experienced it, you may not know what it feels like, but the best description I can give is that it’s like piling 10 blankets on top of yourself and expecting someone to still see what is happening outside the blankets.

When someone is struggling the last thing they need to hear is that they should try harder, cheer up, or get up and go back to work. See, they would if they could. When I faced depression, I could tell you about the agonizing hours of doing nothing. I missed spending time with my friends, going to class, and volunteering with the freshmen on my campus – but in that moment, all I could think about was crying (despite there being no logical reasoning).

When someone is going through an experience like that, don’t tell them what they should or shouldn’t be doing. Don’t throw the Bible at them or start lecturing them – simply ask if there’s anything you can do to help. It may be frustrating at times to watch them act in strange ways and it may even make you feel helplessly inadequate, but by simply showing you care, they will forever be grateful.

Dealing with mental illness is a challenging reality for many individuals, families, and churches. There is no easy answer to solving it and it will be an area that churches will always need to continue working at. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that by showing love and compassion and embracing those who are struggling, we are doing our part to open up the Body of Christ and we are emulating His presence in the lives of those who feel so helpless and so frail.


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Ed Stetzer on a new approach to mental illness

Ed Stetzer, writing on  his Christianity Today blog, argues that churches today need a more Christlike approach to people who live with mental illness. I could not agree with him more.

“Too often,” he writes, “our churches are unprepared to walk with the suffering, like I was as a young pastor. This results in a shunned believer who is driven out to deal with a heavy burden on his own.”

“Mental illness, mental disease, is a reality. Of course, it is a result of the Fall and the sin that is a part of all of our lives. But it also has a physical component that sometimes has to be dealt with physically, which is my primary focus here. To ignore the reality of mental illness hampers our ability as the church to have robust, intelligent, helpful conversations to find ways to come alongside those who are suffering and offer hope.”

Are we in the church adding to the already heavy burden of mental illness, or are we walking alongside our sisters and brothers, assuring that they are no longer carrying the burden of  a mental illness alone?  Let ADNet know what you need in order to minister with the people living with a mental illness in your congregation. Let’s begin offering hope together.

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Black Holes in My Brain

A poem by Dwight L. Roth

black brain image

I have come to discover that I now have black holes in my brain.
Spaces of emptiness that never get filled
Like the holes in my pants pocket the memories slip out…

“Oh, you are here? Well I didn’t realize! When did you get here?
You have been here a few weeks? Well I didn’t remember.
Tell me something I should know…

What shall we talk about…
Can I do something for you… do you need a light on?
Would you like to watch the news if I turn it on?
Do you want me to set the table for breakfast?
Can I help you in some way?
Would you like a piece of chocolate? Go ahead have one!

Is this Sunday? Are we going to church today?
Where is Mother and when is she coming home?
She won’t be coming back home? Oh my!
These are things I should remember.
When will we go to see her again? Can we go today?
We were there today?
Why can’t I remember? Were we just there today?

I remember my grandfather was just like this.
He would apologize for his memory all the time.
I hope I never get that way.

By the way, where is Mother?
Do you know when she will be back?
She’s at the home!! I didn’t know. Somebody should have told me!
When will she be coming home?
You say she won’t be coming home?

Oh my, I will have to learn to cook!
Perhaps you can show me how to cook…
I will have to take care of myself.

I just discovered I have no money in my wallet!
Can you take me by the bank tomorrow to cash a check?
I should pay you something for your expenses.
You are keeping the expenses on a tab?
Well, I should pay you.
You will take care of me? But you can’t keep coming to stay with me?
I should pay you something to help with the expenses.
You are using a debit card… from my account?
Well, I wonder why the bank didn’t notify me about this.

Tell me, Where is Mother?
Oh yes, she is at the home… up on 104th Avenue…
near Hollyrood close to the church.
Have I ever been there? I have… I don’t seem to remember.
Will she be coming home this evening?
She’s living there… all the time? For how long?
She won’t be coming home again? Is she sick? What is wrong with her?

Can you take me with you when you go to see her?
Can we go this evening to see her?
We were just there this afternoon? Why can’t I remember that?

Good night! I must check to see that the door is locked.
I just came back out to see if I had locked the door.
Well it looks like all the doors are locked.
Is anybody there…
Oh, I just came back out to check to see if the door was locked.

Good Morning… Where is Helen?”


Dwight Roth was brought up in a Mennonite preacher’s family in Masontown, Pennsylvania. During the past forty-five years, he has been a Mennonite church planter in Rocky Mount, NC, a pastor, schoolteacher, and Assembly of God elder. Presently he is retired and attends an independent church planting in Waxhaw, NC called Fellowship Church. 

Dwight shared his poem with us, with these comments:

I thought this might be helpful for those who are going through a similar situation. 

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, after going through a very emotional transition with my in-laws Paul and Helen White. Ruth’s mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and her father was in a progressing stage of Altzheimer’s. We live in North Carolina and they in Edmonton, Alberta.

 Her mother had to be placed in a care facility immediately, and her father needed a confined unit but none was available at the time. Their children took turns traveling to Edmonton during the next two months to stay with Paul until a unit opened.

The setting for this writing was during Christmas, immediately after Helen was placed in a home about twenty minutes away. It was heartbreaking to see the struggle Paul was going through at that time.

He has since been placed in a facility and at 88 is doing as well as he can under the circumstances. Helen died ten months after being diagnosed.

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Lucy Made of Light

teddy bear

By Linda West, Morden, Manitoba, Canada

“It’s always darkest before it’s pitch black!” she says.  “My name’s Lucy.  What’s yours?”

It’s my first time at the Hope and Healing support group for people living with mental illness.  I’m not even sure I should be here.  It’s like those dreams where you’re walking down Main Street and suddenly realize your don’t have any clothes on.

Without warning, I’m enveloped by a hug so warm and strong that for a few seconds, my toes don’t touch the floor.  “Better now?” Lucy asks.  I’m surprised to hear myself say, “Yes.”

Lucy sits beside me during the meeting, holding a teddy bear.  “His name is Mr. Bear”, she says.  “I take him with me everywhere I go.  I think he likes you.”

People are talking about emotions, and boundaries and getting by for one more day.  I’m relieved that, as a newcomer, it’s all right if I just listen.  Hiding symptoms, pretending I’m OK, has become second nature, a way to go on breathing.

As weeks go by, Lucy and I and Mr. Bear meet for coffee, and walks in the park. I learn that Lucy’s family history is riddled with contemporary clichés.  Dysfunctional family. Co-dependence. PTSD.  Addiction.  Mental illness.  Emotional abuse.

To call Lucy a survivor wouldn’t do her justice.  Lucy is both child-like and profound. She breathes life into lifeless labels that criticize and condemn.

“My mother played the piano when she was drunk.  I learned to love her music.”

“The kids called me fatso and dumbbell at school.  God told me not to listen.”

“My dad was a lot like me.  Mom called him an idiot.  I sat with him when he cried.”

I’m also impressed by Lucy’s rock solid, uncomplicated faith in God.  I listen politely to her spiritual wisdom.  I haven’t been inside a church or said a prayer in years.

“Don’t be scared,” she tells me on a bad days.  “God’s with you even if you think he’s just a silly story somebody wrote down in a book.”

“God can’t get a word in if you don’t stop talking and listen.”

“Don’t tell me you have no good qualities.  God doesn’t make junk!”

One thing Lucy says about God has a smidgen of appeal.  “Remember he knows how to carry a cross.”

One evening over coffee, with Lucy’s warm hand resting lightly on mine, the door opens to the tight place next to my heart where my symptoms have been buried alive since I was thirteen years old and realized something was wrong.

I tell Lucy everything.  The strange spells that come without warning.  Blurred vision. Shapeless shadows spinning in dizzy-making circles in front of my eyes.  Sounds echoing like voices in the House of Horrors at the Red River Exhibition.  The depression that feels like walking through quicksand.  The fear and the shame.  How I envy other people, the Sane Ones, and wonder why mental illness happened to me.

Lucy sits in silence through it all.  Her presence grounds me, keeps me safe, until I finally run out of words.  We sit a while without speaking, sipping our tea.  Lucy’s response, when it comes, is brief: “God might tell you some good things about yourself if you didn’t keep running away.”

Lucy’s right.  I did have dreams, once upon a time.  They died when the symptoms hit.  It’s so long ago, I barely remember what they were.

“You’re going to feel better now that all the secrets are out,” Lucy promises.  The next morning I’m up and dressed by seven, even though I feel like sleeping until noon.  Not a stellar accomplishment.  But it’s a start.

A few months later, Lucy hits a rough patch.  Her neighbor calls to say she’s running down the back lane in her pajamas, crying.  I find her sitting on the grass at the little park across the street from where she lives.  She looks at me with tears running down her face.  “The voices came back”, she says.  “They called me crazy and said I should jump in the river and die.  They kept saying it and saying it.  Jump!  Jump!  Jump!  I was trying to run away.”

This time, I’m the one holding her.  I say, “Lucy, the voices are a bunch of liars.  You’re beautiful and special and gifted.  The world’s a better place because you’re in it.  My world’s better because of you.  You hug me until my toes don’t touch the ground and help me see what’s in front of my nose, even when it sucks. You’re not crazy!  You’re the sanest person I know.”

Then I promise Lucy what she always promises me when I’m the one who’s down.  “Pitch black doesn’t last forever and I’m with you until the lights come on again.”

“Lucy’s off work for a couple of weeks, adjusting to changes in her medication.  Then she returns to her job as a janitor in a nursing home.  On her first day back at work, I’m there at quitting time to give her a ride home.  I find her in the day room with a Bible open on the table in front of her.

The smile is electric, her eyes alive with excitement. “Come here, Valerie, and see what I found! Right here in Genesis!  I only read the Jesus parts before.  Tonight I started on page one.  And look what it says!  God made the light first, then he made people.  You know what that means, Valerie?  You, me, everybody, we’re all made of light!” Lucy wraps her arms around me and hugs me till my toes don’t touch the floor, and I’m laughing with tears in my eyes because the glorious image is perfect.  Lucy made of light!

The years pass faster than they should. I rediscover dreams I lost when mental illness took me down.  I’m able to go back to school and get a degree, and have a job that includes walking alongside people struggling with mental illness.

Sometimes I speak to students and church groups about mental illness.  I’m not hiding any more.  People will understand.  Or not. We all see through different eyes.

Lucy has travelled light years beyond the grim prognosis she received when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  She’s my rock.  My loveable, unflappable, unstoppable friend.

Pitch black comes suddenly on a crisp autumn afternoon.  The voice on the phone is apologetic.  The  message unbearable.  It’s a doctor in emergency at St. Boniface Hospital.  “I’m calling about your friend, Lucy Williams.  I’m very sorry to have to tell you she passed away this afternoon.”

Time stops.  My mind goes blank.  I don’t know how long I sit at my desk, afraid to move because whatever I do next will be the beginning of going on without Lucy.  When thought returns, I realize there are people to notify from Hope and Healing who care as deeply about Lucy as I do.

No, I can’t phone anyone.  Not yet.  Doctors are human.  They make mistakes.  Maybe it’s a different Lucy. Maybe my Lucy is still out shopping for shoes. That’s what she said she had to do today.  She has a hard time finding shoes that fit her meager budget.

Co-workers come back from coffee break.  I don’t remember what I said, or even if I cried.  Someone asks if there’s anything they can do.  My answer is pure Lucy. “Ask everyone to pray.”

The church is packed for Lucy’s memorial service.  People are laughing and crying and hugging each other.  Lucy would appreciate that.  During the eulogy, Lucy’s minister says Lucy was the best armchair theologian he ever knew.

After the service, Lucy’s family asks if I’d like to have something to remember her by.  I ask for Mr. Bear, the teddy she had with her the night she reached out to me at the Hope and Healing meeting.  He’s propped on my desk as I write. His stoic button eyes tell me he misses Lucy too.

I find some peace in trusting that, for Lucy, pitch black disappeared forever the day she knocked and God opened the door and hugged her till her toes didn’t touch the ground.

She’d have one of those big electric smiles on her face if she knew that one of the things she said about God that had only a smidgen of appeal the first time I heard it, strikes like lightning today.  “Remember he knows how to carry a cross.”

Linda West is the 2014 winner of the non-fiction writing contest sponsored by the Winnipeg Free Press and the Writers’ Collective of Manitoba. Shared here by permission of the author. Thanks to Irma Janzen for calling the story to our attention.


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Hope Despite a Blue Christmas – Living in the Shadow of Depression During the Holiday Season

Blue Christmas Tree

Blue Christmas Tree

The sounds of Christmas carols, the wafts of the finest Christmas dishes, and the sight of the red and the green fill the air as people sing “joy to the world”, “how great is my joy”, and “hark how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, throw cares away.”  Christmas is one of two hallmarks during the Christian year – a holiday where even individuals who usually don’t attend church find themselves filing in to crowded pews for midnight mass.  Christmas is a time of merry making and gift giving, a time for delight and expectancy, but it can also be a very difficult time for the  over 235,067 Americans who live in the shadow of depression, some facing suicidal ideation this Christmas.

What do we do when nothing seems calm or bright, but when our worlds are turned upside-down and inside-out due to extreme mental illness, job loss, or the inability to conceive a child?  How do we respond to this family time when we are facing divorce, have just lost our husband of 18 years, or have a child who is refusing to come home because he has cut us entirely out of his life?

These are challenging and difficult questions that every pastor and worship leader should ask themselves during this holiday season.  You see, while the rest of the congregation might be enjoying the gingerbread cookies and hot cocoa, several others in your congregation may be asking themselves what’s the point.  What’s the point of being happy when they feel there is nothing left?  What’s the point of giving gifts when they can’t even afford a box of chocolates?  What’s the point of attending all of these events when they don’t even have enough energy to get out of bed to go to the Christmas Eve service?

I am reluctant to give a hard and fast answer because the truth is depression is just about as complex as Christmas itself is.  Depression can be caused by a variety of factors some of which are situational with the potential to resolve themselves eventually, and some of them are biological meaning the person may continue to struggle for the remainder of their lives (although in certain cases individuals can get better or at least have the effects of depression significantly lessened through counseling and/or medications).  For many who do struggle with depression, Christmas is an especially difficult time because many of their usual supports may not be available.  Their counselors may be taking a holiday, and they may worry that if they discuss what they are feeling with the friends and family they usually share with that they will be “ruining” the other person’s Christmas.  Many may even begin to feel down on themselves or berate themselves for feeling “upset for no reason” when Christmas is clearly a happy time.

Yet, although I cannot change the culture of what Christmas is (and in many ways wouldn’t want to), I believe there are a few things that we can all do in order to make Christmas more accessible and helpful for our loved ones who struggle with depression during this season:

1)      Recognize that Christmas and winter in general are frequently the times when individuals become depressed.  For some people, this may be the first time that their Grandma Edna, Uncle Frank, or nephew Chad won’t be at the Christmas table.  Others may suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and naturally have their serotonin levels drop due to a lack of sunlight.  Even just recognizing that depression during Christmas is common will help lessen your loved one’s anxiety and reassure them that what they are feeling is completely normal.

2)      Be gentle with yourself or with your loved one about how many activities you/they want to partake in.  For many people, when depression hits it can be incredibly hard to even muster up the strength to get out of bed, let alone to find that perfect dress or suit, to find matching shoes, and to round up your children in an attempt to get out of the house on time for the Christmas Eve service.  If you feel that you don’t have the strength, know that it’s okay.  Don’t force yourself to go to a million different Christmas activities.  If you feel that you can only handle one, then go to one.  If you feel like you don’t even have the strength for one, then don’t berate yourself for missing this year’s cantata.

3)      Consider attending a Blue Christmas celebration.  It might even be a beneficial thing to not only invite your loved one to this event, but to actually attend with them.  This will help them to feel like you are standing in solidarity with them.  There’s nothing to be ashamed of by choosing to go to these commemorations.  In fact, in recent years they have been highly attended – some churches even being completely packed and thus advising attendants to arrive early in order to find seats.

4)      Stress that Christmas is about the fellowship, not about the gifts.  If your loved one is feeling the strain of financial pressure and cannot see how they could possibly get you a gift, reassure them that that is okay.  In fact, it might even be a better option to simply say that there will be no gifts given this year.  This alleviates the pressure.  If you are of a tradition that insists upon gift giving, consider giving something homemade like a plate of cookies or doing a “white elephant gift exchange” (objects that are $5 or less, second hand, or homemade).

5)      Consider taking your loved-one’s children out for special activities during this Christmas season.  Many individuals who suffer from depression may feel badly that their children aren’t able to participate in certain activities because their Mom or Dad doesn’t feel well enough to drive them or attend with them.  You can really help alleviate the stress for your loved one by asking if you can pick up their son or daughter and take them to your house for a Christmas cooking baking day or a gingerbread house competition.  Perhaps, you could even take both your kids and their kids out for skating, tobogganing, or have popcorn and snacks at your house while you watch a favourite family Christmas video or decorate the tree.  The parent suffering from depression may really appreciate this respite and plus it will be fun for everyone :).  If the parent asks what you want in return, assure them that you don’t expect anything back.  Perhaps if the kids are friends you could even say that your children just wanted to have a play date with theirs.

6)      If you’re struggling with depression and find that you don’t have the strength to put on a giant Christmas dinner, consider delegating and enlisting the help of others.  Perhaps your son or daughter could act as the host for this year and suggest that others in the family bring desserts, salads, and other goodies.  This will help alleviate the stress on the host with depression from having to find the energy to prepare everything him/herself plus the pressure of cleaning the entire house.

7)      Lastly, let your loved one know that they aren’t being a burden.  If they need to talk to you, let them know that it won’t be ruining your Christmas.  Try to be there for them as much as possible during this time.

These are only a few suggestions, but I believe that if we all pitch in a little bit we can help alleviate the holiday stress for many individuals who suffer from depression.  After all, Jesus’s birth is not foremost about celebration (although that is a large part), it’s about the hope and healing that He has brought to the world.

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5 Ridiculous Things You Probably Believe About Mental Illness


Actor Robin Williams who passed away recently due to suicide

As I think about Robin William’s unfortunate death I am reminded of countless individuals in our country and in our world who face severe depression, eating disorders, drug abuse, and various other forms of mental illness each day.  The unfortunate reality is that for as common as mental illness is in our world, many churches and pastors are not properly equipped to care for their flock.  Many seminaries do not spend near as much time as they should to teach a pastor or church leader how to properly care for, counsel, or be with someone whose scars are not physical.  Recounting my own seminary experience as someone who did not major in pastoral or clinical counselling, I can attest to the fact that mental illness was not really a focus in the majority of my classes and if it was it was more surface level than anything else.  Add to this the fact that many churches do not preach sermons related to mental illness and see it as something shameful or a flaw in a person’s impeccable record of faith.  After all, a TRUE Christian wouldn’t feel this way.  A TRUE Christian would trust God at all times and never feel anxious or depressed.  A TRUE Christian would know that God would never give them something more than they could handle…. Yeah… totally not true.  Below, I’d like to dispel some of the most common myths about mental illness in hopes that our churches can become more inclusive and safe places for all individuals regardless of what life circumstances might bring to them.

#1: I’m a Smart, Successful, Educated (fill in the blank) Person.  Mental illness could never happen to me (or my family)

Mental illness affects more people than we may realize. Many studies even suggest that as many as 1 out of every 4 adults will face mental illness at one point or another in their lives and the rates increase due to certain medical conditions as well as due to natural factors such as child birth.  On average, more women are diagnosed with mental illnesses every year (which could also be a result of hormonal factors), however, women are on average more willing to accept professional help for their symptoms in comparison to men.  With 25% of the Canadian population facing mental illness at one time or another, it is completely possible that you, a very close friend, or a family member may be experiencing some troubling symptoms.  With a quarter of the population struggling it is also A SURE FACT that a number of people in your congregation are also struggling.  Many of whom are probably not where to turn for help or even sure how to ask because they don’t want to be seen as “crazy” or “disillusioned.”

Mental illness affects people from a variety of socio-economic, educational, and religious backgrounds.  Having a faith in Christ DOES provide great comfort and hope but IS NOT a magic cure to end pain and suffering.  Some of the most creative and bright people experience depression and anxiety.

NOT everyone who has a mental illness will end up homeless, unable to hold down a job, or unable to have a family.  In fact, the percentage of people for whom this is the case is relatively small in proportion to the amount of people who are diagnosed each year.  On the contrary, many people with depression, bipolar, anxiety, or OCD are able to not only finish school but to excel at their jobs and to be excellent parents.  They may occasionally struggle from time to time and have to ask for an extended leave from work or extensions on their papers, but in between episodes, many of them are quite stable and have the potential to be great friends and even very supportive helpers to others who go through similar experiences.

#2:  Mental illness is a sign of weakness

Some people believe that if they ask for help when facing a mental illness that they are showing they are weak and unable to take care of themselves.  Our culture thrives off of individualism and being a self-made man or woman.  We have no time for people who don’t fit into that mould.  In reality, this is not the way that God ever intended human life to look like.  In the Garden of Eden God saw that it was not good for a man to be alone and so He created a spouse, a HELPER for Adam.  He intended humans to live in community, to be vulnerable with one another, and to help each other out.

The unfortunate reality of many churches is that because they lack knowledge and understanding about mental illness that instead of seeing how to gently walk with a struggling person they right away put up this defense mechanism that it is the person’s own fault.  Jesus did not come as Superman.  The book of Hebrews reminds us that He was tempted in every regard as we are yet without sin.[1]  Jesus understood pain and suffering.  He understood grief, denial, and rejection.  He even understood what it was like to not be able to feel God’s presence in His life anymore.[2]

Churches are great at quoting verses out of context thus maligning a person who experiences mental health difficulties.  They may make outrageous claims such as that God will never give us more than we can bear.  Many Christians mean well when they make share these statements and may even believe that they are helpful or a good reminder, however, when someone is facing severe depression and is not even able to get out of bed in the morning IT IS more than they can bear at that time.  What the verse actually is saying is not that we will never feel that a situation is more than we can bear, but that we will never be TEMPTED beyond what we can bear because God provides a way out for us (through our belief in Christ).[3]  God IS faithful and He does care about our lives, but quoting Scripture at someone who feels incredibly hopeless is probably not the best way to show them Christian care and compassion.

This problem is further compounded by people who out of desperation and who do not know what else to say in this moment make sharp remarks like “just snap out of it” or “you’ve been feeling this way for 3 months, it’s time to get over it” or even “you just need to stop self-pitying yourself.”  Living and caring for someone with a mental illness is HARD work.  It’s a commitment that doesn’t get any easier over time.  HOWEVER, people who face severe depression, anxiety, or OCD are not able to “just snap out of it.”  This phrase makes it sound like it was their choice in the first place to feel this way.  When in reality, the majority of people who have mental illness DO NOT “pretend” to feel bad in order to get your attention and sympathy.  In fact, many of them feel terrible that they think this way and feel like they aren’t being a good friend or being helpful because of their struggles.

Rather than churches making it sound like a person can choose or not choose to be depressed at will, churches need to surround these individuals with love, support, and care.  Providing them with help when they are unable to help themselves.  Showing them the love of Christ rather than displaying their own ignorance or frustration.

#3: Mental illness (especially schizophrenia and bipolar) are sinful and a sign of demonic oppression/possession

Yes, this claim is outrageous, but you would not believe the amount of people who have asked my opinion on this question since I recently took a spiritual warfare course.  Depression is not a sin.  It is a combination of hormonal and chemical imbalances as well as life situations and possibly unresolved childhood issues.  Depression may result from sin in the general sense because after sin entered the world pain and suffering ensued, however, just like #2 suggests it is not a sign of weakness or a sign that someone is not truly following Christ.  In fact, it is thought that many famous and very influential Christians have faced depression or other mental illnesses.  Mother Theresa often had bouts of depression, St. John of the Cross (who wrote an entire book on the Dark Night of the Soul) likely also suffered from depression.  In fact, in a recent Self-Care and Ministry class that I took at McMaster Divinity College I did some research and learned in class that as many as 60% of pastors (or even more) will face depression.  This is due in large part to the nature of their work, the demands placed on them, and having a lack of understanding on proper self-care techniques.  Christian counsellors and chaplains as well as nurses, doctors, and social workers may also face high rates of burn-out and possibly even mental illness due to the nature of their work and the issues that others are bringing to them daily.

Even the most charismatic of people who are big into Spiritual Warfare would generally admit that even if a person was delivered (from a demon) they should still continue to take their medications and that deliverance does not necessarily equal complete healing.

In fact, it is very hurtful and even dangerous for churches to make outrageous claims such as that because a person is bipolar they are demonized or that people who have depression should just stop taking their medications and believe that God will heal them.  They need to have such faith.  This is completely bogus!  How many Christians do you know would tell someone with diabetes they should stop taking their insulin or someone with asthma to stop using a puffer because God is going to heal them if they only had faith?  Not many churches would do this and many of them would think it was sheer foolishness to suggest this… but for some reason when it comes to mental illness we have a different standard all together?

Rather than making outrageous claims that are based more on fairy tales and fanciful myths than on the truth of the Gospel, we should focus on what Christ actually said.  That He did not come to condemn, but to save.  That He came in order that we may have life and have it to the fullest.  That He is the giver of joy.

#4: People who have mental illness should not be allowed to become pastors or church leaders because they are too unstable and could affect the workings of the church

It is an unfortunate thing when churches deny someone who otherwise has an excellent aptitude and possess great skills from serving in the ministry because they struggle with a mental illness.  We are all flawed and sinful people.  We all have the ability to use the church for God’s edification or else to use it to exclude and shut out people who aren’t exactly like us.  Whether or not you have a mental illness you have this potential.  Churches which not only employ pastors who have mental illness but have resources available and make an effort to make self-care more of a priority actually have the potential to really help the congregants.  If a congregant knows that the pastor has experienced something similar and won’t judge them they might be more willing to open up.  If a congregant knows the pastor is taking medication they may feel less stigmatized.  No one should be excluded from a church office on the basis of depression or anxiety.  Instead, they should be seen as allies and friends.  A potential great asset to the church.

#5: Everyone who is diagnosed with a mental illness at one point in their life will struggle with mental illness for the rest of their lives.  They definitely need to be on medication at all times.

While it is true that certain individuals will continue to struggle with mental health issues throughout the duration of their lives, many others may experience bouts or seasons of depression or anxiety with little or no symptoms in-between.  The reason for this is because not all depression is caused by chemical imbalances.  Teenagers (especially women) may be more prone to depression not only because of the stresses of high school but because of the rapid growth that is taking place in them not to mention that many women’s hormones have not settled into a regular cycle yet.  People may also face depression due to circumstances and life situations including loss of employment, financial difficulty, trauma, or abuse.  Depression can also take place in women after the birth of a child (post-partum depression/baby blues) or as a result of a physical health problem (in which case seeing a family doctor might be in order to rule out any physical possibilities first). In these instances, often by learning how to rethink about things medication may be only needed for a very short time or not at all.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is another common illness which often has long-term negative effects on an individual but not necessarily so.  PTSD affects far more than just soldiers coming back from military duty, it can also affect victims of traumatic assaults or even people who have suffered traumatic losses, accidents, or illnesses.

Another factor to consider is people who have recently been diagnosed with a long-term physical ailment especially one that is terminal.  In these instances individuals may feel very hopeless and alone, but with the right support of the church and of a godly pastor and counsellor they may be able to find hope and healing once again as they learn to process their grief.  It does not matter when the person was diagnosed or how old they were at the time, the affects can still be utterly traumatic on the person.

Medication has proven to be helpful for many individuals facing mental illness but at the same time it is important to weigh out the side-effects with the results.  Some people are very sensitive to medication and may even find the meds make them feel worse (this is especially true of people under the age of 25).  If you take medication and find that you are feeling more hopeless and alone it is important to talk with your doctor about whether you should continue or whether there are other options.  Other individuals may find it more helpful to do group or individual therapy and may not require the medications in order to function at a reasonable level.  In any case, it is very important to understand that the most effective form of treatment is a COMBINATION of medication AND counselling.  Medication alone rarely works, it is not a magic formula.  But being part of a supportive network including a loving church will increase an individual’s chance for success.

BONUS: #6: The psychiatric ward in the hospital is the “Looney bin”.  All the rooms are padded and people walk around like zombies rubbing their hands together constantly and shouting obscenities.  As a pastor, this is a place I should avoid.  After all, I may be attacked verbally, physically, or worse.

Contrary to what you might see on TV or in movies, psychiatric wards are generally kept well-clean and with a variety of activities to keep individuals busy throughout the day.  The days of institutions are over, but the mentality still sometimes lingers.  This only adds shame and guilt to an individual who is already experiencing a tremendous weight in their lives.  Rather than buying into these myths, I encourage pastors to get to know local doctors and counsellors and to be able to make informed decisions and referrals in the best interests of their congregants.

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My Brother Who Doesn’t Say a Word – My Experience of Living in a L’Arche Community

I’m an extrovert.  I’m so extroverted that on my Myer’s Brigg’s typology indicator I scored 21 for being an extrovert and 0 for being an introvert.  I didn’t even know that was possible, but if you ask my roomate, her response would be something along the lines of “I don’t know Deborah, have you ever met yourself?” So, when I moved into an intentional community for adults who have various forms of developmental disabilities, it was safe to say that I knew a whole lot about talking and was basically oblivious to what silence was.

When I first moved into L’Arche, I quickly became aware of how technology nagged me and distracted me from real relationships with real people.  I’m ashamed to say that my cell phone often was more important to me than live conversations in those early days.  Sometimes it is still a challenge when I’m sitting in the living room with four adults who are not necessarily intellectually stimulating and repeat the same phrases over and over to not glance at a Facebook message or text a theologian-friend instead of engaging in their life style.

Being at L’Arche has been a journey into simplicity.  It’s been about finding my true spiritual center while also walking with the “least of these” – the poor whom Jesus often told us to love and care for.  In particular, one relationship has really transformed my life – my friendship with a middle-aged man named Christopher.

Christopher came to our community 25 years ago when he was about my age (I just turned 23).  Christopher is legally blind and also is non-verbal.  Growing up, Christopher would never be able to speak his first word, learn how to eat a sandwich on his own, or take his first steps unsupported.  I have lived in community for the past 4 years of my life in different ways.  First I lived on the Tyndale residence – an intense community of likeminded believers who prayed and worshiped together often.  Then, I moved to a Mennonite seminary in the states that was big on intentional living and we even took courses preparing ourselves for this possibility.  Yet, nothing in those four years would have prepared me to understand how to live in community with someone who is non-verbal.  To me, community seemed to be getting together with a group of people who have similar interests and hobbies to yours and who want to share life by living and serving together.  Yet, how was I supposed to find anything in common with a man twice my age who didn’t say a single word?

At first my relationship with Christopher was a bit hard to master.  It was hard to think of Christopher and I being friends rather than me simply being his caregiver.  It was hard for me to have any idea of what togetherness looks like when one person uses a wheelchair and does not always make any indication of understanding where you are coming from.  It was also hard for me to know how to share life – my deepest pains, fears, and happiness with a man who couldn’t respond in the way I thought I needed him to.

Yet, getting to know Christopher has brought immense joy and gratification into my life.  Christopher is an excellent teacher. Anyone who wants to know what living in community is really like should get to know him.  Christopher has taught me that togetherness means loving and caring for one another, accepting their true self – flaws and all, and walking with them in supportive and non-judgmental ways.  Through my relationship with Christopher I have learned that togetherness can happen when we share a meal together, listen to good music together, or laugh at a good joke.

I’m a peace studies theologian and activist at heart.  I’ve done all the usual peacenik type things – rallies, protests, and petitions.  I’ve served in soup kitchens, gone overseas to slums, and read Ghandi.  All of these things are very important.  I’ve tried to live intentionally and intentionally live.  Everyone’s story about togetherness and sharing in peace formation is different and if done in God honouring ways helps to bring the Kingdom of Heaven a reality one step closer to earth.  For me, peace begins with togetherness and this togetherness in my life looks like creating home with a group of adults who have developmental disabilities.  For me, togetherness looks like sharing Shalom with my brother who doesn’t say a word.

This article originally appeared in BeanZine – a Canadian grassroots magazine devoted to peace activism and social justice.  If you like what you see hear please check out my personal blog: to read more about how L’Arche continues to mold and shape me as a Christian, a member of society, and a budding seminarian.


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Panda Cake and Down Syndrome – My 23rd Birthday Party at L’Arche Daybreak

Deborah wearing a party hat with the panda cake in front of her

Me with the famous panda cake made by one of the other L’Arche assistants

There’s something about birthdays that have always made them extra special for me.  In my first few years of life, my family members and family friends gathered around me showering me with gifts – after all, every daughter deserves a nice bike, some new books, and the latest toys.  As I got a little older, my parents helped me to plan birthday parties inviting the girls in my class and neighbourhood kids over for games and other activities.  Then when I got into university I took the fancy approach of inviting some of my best friends out for dinner as well as having an open party in our suite where everyone from the dorm floor was invited to share in pie and water gun fights (for those who don’t know, my birthday is March 14th which is pi-day so pie was to be expected at such a gathering…the water guns…not so much, they were later confiscated by my Resident Advisor’s as contraband due to a silly rule stating we were not allowed to play with water in the halls…they were later given back to me but only after I promised not to squirt the RAs and after I was successfully doused myself).  And then, of course, there was the time when much to my introverted roomate’s chagrin I invited the entire school up to our apartment for a potluck.  Lest you think I was taking advantage of her, she agreed to the party about a month in advance, however, I think she may have been expecting closer to 13 rather than 30 people to show up.

Regardless of how small or large my gatherings have been, whether they have been potlucks after church or a dinner with three of my best friends, birthdays to me represent celebration and celebration to me represents community and a spirit of being together.

This year, I also had a birthday party, but it looked much different than any others I have ever been to.  This year I did not plan a fancy outing or indulge in my guilty pleasure of hamburgers.  This year, my party took place at L’Arche (an intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities) and around the circle were my new friends who I’ve only known for 8 months.  My friends have spirit, charisma, and passion.  They are devoted to me and love me for who I am accepting my deepest dreams.  They cheer me on, inspire me, and gently chastise me when they think I’ve gone too far with my corny jokes.  My friends also happen to have autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and bipolar disorder.

At L’Arche we do celebrations very well and birthdays are no exception.  Although the party itself was held on March 23rd (due to me being at a retreat on my actual birthday), the festive mood actually happened long before that.  Way before the actual day (back in February) one of our core members, excitedly began telling everyone, “we just finished Jordan’s birthday.  Deborah’s is next.” (Jordan is one of the other assistants at my house).  Over and over she repeated the question, “when’s your birthday?  How will you celebrate?  Who will you invite over?”  As February came to a close and March approached, the questions began to become more and more intense.  “What do you want for your birthday?  What should we make?”

Finally, the week before my birthday it was decided that we would have chicken for the meal and a panda cake.  The person we are celebrating always gets to decide what type of cake they will want and this year I was adamant that I was going to have a panda cake.

The core members (residents), of course, had their own ideas.  You see, chicken and a birthday gift related to a panda theme were not entirely what they were thinking of.  They wanted to have hot dogs and hamburgers for my birthday.  Forget about the fact that it’s still Canadian winter and there’s snow on the ground, they were ready to pull out their shorts and have a barbeque on the patio outside.   When we convinced them that they might have to wait until the summer for the BBQ their next suggestion was to order pizza or Chinese take-out.  They were thinking of all the foods which they enjoyed the best and figured because they liked it I must also want that.  Finally, when we convinced them that we would be having something homemade, Darryl (one of the core members) proudly blurted out, “Deborah, I’m gonna cook for you.  I’m making you spaghetti!”  To which Mary-Anne (another core member) who is best friends with Darryl was not going to be seen as the runner up or the one to not participate so she boldly proclaimed “And I’m making the cake!”  When it came to who would do dishes after the party…well, that one was a bit harder to convince the core members about!

At dinner on Sunday night we all gathered around the table as the chicken was served by the community chef (not really, but he’s the best cook amongst everyone at L’Arche).  After we were done eating, the chef said, “I’m going to go downstairs to do something and I’ll be right back up.”  This was supposed to signal a surprise, but core members can never keep anything a secret, so Jenna blurted out, “He’s going to get the cake!!!”  Well, that was the end of that.

When he came upstairs with the cake, all of the core members began singing happy birthday.  To me it didn’t matter that half the words were missing, that they were completely off tune, and that there was an awkward pause when they came to my name.  To me the song was a beautiful melody and I knew that it was not just a cliché thing but coming from the heart.

After we shared the cake together, we began our tradition of going around the circle and sharing the individual’s “gifts” with each other.  This is a beautiful practice at L’Arche and honestly is one of those moments when you just feel so good inside.  I’ve sat around the table many times when core members have shared about an assistant’s gifts or vice versa, but now it was my turn.  I wasn’t expecting to be so emotional about it and in fact I didn’t even realize I was being emotional until Darryl proposed a toast to which Mary-Anne looked at me with a worried expression on her face and said, “Deborah, what’s wrong?  Why are you crying?”  I hadn’t even realized that a tear had slid down my cheek.

If you ask my friends what my gifts are they would say something like that I’m loyal, passionate, and that my faith means a lot to me.  I have never felt comfortable claiming my gifts, though, because I grew up with this mindset that to say you have achieved something or are good at something was haughty and perhaps would make others who don’t share those same abilities and talents feel badly about themselves.  So up until this year if you asked me what my gifts were I would try to avert the conversation.  However, L’Arche has taught me that there is great strength in naming your gifts and that we have the right to be proud of accomplishments we have met.

When the core members shared about my gifts, I realized how much the little daily interactions I have with them really mean.  It may not seem like a lot when I help them wash their feet, but to them this is an act of dignity and respect.  To me reading a bed time story with a core member might feel like a pleasant way to end the day, to them it means that I value them enough to give them one-on-one attention.  Having core members tell me that I’m their best friend is perhaps one of the greatest feelings I can ever have.  One of the core members offered to take me to McDonald’s after church for my birthday lunch and another (perhaps trying to one-up him) said she was going to take me to Tim Horton’s (a Canadian doughnut chain), followed by seeing a movie on the big screen with me, and then we were going to finish the whole day off with Big Macs!  In that moment I was reminded of just have fortunate I am to have friends like this.

Deborah in the middle of a line of friends

Me (middle) wearing the new shirt my house got me as a birthday present surrounding by assistants who came from other houses to celebrate. Also, Mary-Anne (pink sweater) and Darryl (wolf sweater) two of the core members from my house.

Yes, birthdays are always special times regardless of how you celebrate.  But, if I really feel like being bold, may I make a recommendation?  At your next party invite a friend or two who has a developmental disability.  What you’ll find there is just a whole lot of warmth and love.  It will truly be a birthday to remember!

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“God, I Know You’re There”

Man stands next to large sign that reads "Welcome: Providence Spirituality Center"

Darryl, a resident of L’Arche Daybreak standing outside of a retreat center near Ottawa, Ontario

That Christians pray is taken to be a fact.  An assumption.  Perhaps even a cliché.  How often have we heard people say to us when we are disclosing some personal information, “well, I’m sorry to hear that.  I’ll certainly be praying for you.”?  Perhaps they may even ask us for permission to share our prayer requests with a church small group or congregation.  In many cases, prayer has been relegated to the sidelines in my life as something that is there but I have not made much of an effort to engage in.  That is, until I started L’Arche.  Truthfully, I used to fall into the category of people who said, “I’ll pray for you” sometimes as a way of closing an uncomfortable conversation because I didn’t know what else to say and at other times as a commitment I was really hoping to follow through with until I got side-tracked by my own life and responsibilities.  Of course, at the same time as forgetting to pray for others, I sincerely desired for my closest friends to lift me up to the Throne Room of Grace and to intercede on my behalf.  We are indeed very blest if we have even one or two close friends who pray earnestly for us and sustain us with their prayers when we do not have the strength in ourselves to pour out petitions to God.

Recently, I was going through a difficult time in my own faith walk and began to have many doubts and questions along the way.  One day I shared some of my concerns with a friend (and former roomate) from Tyndale University College where I attended from 2009-2012 and her first reaction was to respond, “what prayerful intercessors have you shared this with?”  After much pause, I realized that my greatest network of prayerful intercessors is not found in the academy, in the congregation, or even in my inner circle of friends.  Instead, my greatest network lies with the core members (residents) I live and serve with at L’Arche Daybreak (an intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities north of Toronto).  At L’Arche I live in a house with four adults with various stages of developmental disabilities.  Ranging from down syndrome to autism to completely non-verbal, I have learned that the greatest prayers take place around the dinner time where there is lots of laughing, jesting, and silence.  People in my house do not try to impress God with long lists of words, they don’t jibe one another to see who can come up with the “best” prayer request, they definitely don’t use King James language.  No!  They say it like it is!  They pray from the heart.  They simply talk to God like He’s right there, like He’s a friend who is sharing at the dinner table with the rest of us.

Darryl and I making music at the Prayer Partners Retreat

Darryl and I making music at the Prayer Partners Retreat

This past week, one of the core members from my house, Darryl, and I went to a retreat in Kingston, Ontario (close to the nation’s capital of Ottawa).  While at this retreat, an amazing thing happened.  We were singing Taize songs and core members began to offer up their requests.  All of a sudden, it hit me – I WANT THE CORE MEMBERS TO PRAY FOR ME!  I’ve generally been pretty reserved in large church settings to share my prayer requests.  I will share a request or two in a small group of intimate friends or a women’s group if I have had the opportunity to get to know everyone quite well.  Yet, here I was with a group of 36 strangers I had only met a few days before and I felt an urge to have them pray for me.  That night I shared a request with the group that I have not even shared with many of my closest friends or relatives.

The prayers of people with developmental disabilities and the spirituality they live out daily is at once so intense and so simple.  So plain and yet so magnificent.

During the prayer time one woman with down syndrome from another L’Arche community began to offer up this prayer, “God, where are You?  God, I know You hear me.  I know You’re there.  I know You’re present.  When I talk to You I begin to see Your arms, Your legs, Your hands, Your body.”  That was the extent of her prayer.  She didn’t go on to ask for prayer for her parents, siblings, or anyone else.  She simply expressed a need – to know that God was truly there.  A presenting problem – the fact that she had doubts, “God, where are You?”  And a simple trusting faith, “I know You’re here.  I can see You.”

In all of my years of formal theological education, I cannot offer up a prayer like that.  Throughout my life, I have wrestled with doubt, but yet because I grew up in the church, I feel I don’t have the liberty to admit that to anyone.  I’m studying to be a chaplain and eventually a Theology professor.  We are supposed to be the leaders, the strong ones, the ones who console others.  We aren’t supposed to doubt and be unsure.  Or are we?  If we opened ourselves up to truly be honest about our thoughts and emotions would that not present a far greater gift to the community than false piety and certitude?

In this simple prayer that was offered by a core member, a spirit of true vulnerability exists.  Honesty to both doubt and have faith are comingled and bless us.  Her heartfelt cry was an example to me of my own deepest prayers – what I want to say but am afraid to say for fear of how weak my faith would be perceived after all these years of formal theological education.

Darryl and I holding up the candles we made as a craft at the prayer partners retreat

Darryl and I holding up the candles we made as a craft at the prayer partners retreat

The beauty of L’Arche is that here I can be myself. I can truly exist as Deborah and even in my greatest imperfections I will be immediately loved and accepted, forgiveness offered to me every step of the way.  Healing made possible through the ministry of community and fellowship. When I’m with the core members I see how spirituality is ingrained in everything they do.  It’s in the very fibre of who they are.  That’s why when I have a request I want to have the core members know about it.  They’ve got me covered.  They don’t just say they will pray for me, but really do it.  When I have a thanksgiving, I want to share it with them.  They’re the first to rejoice, the first to tell me how happy they are for me, and half the time they are more excited about it then I am.  I’m thankful for this community and this home.  I’m thankful that here I belong and exist.  It is here that I have discovered that prayer is not about the words of our mouths, but it is about the meditations and posture of our hearts.  Sometimes even in its simplest form.  Sometimes even when all around us everything else is purely silent.

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