Today we begin our series on mental illness by establishing our theological groundwork. And it begins with Jesus’ first experience after his baptism- the wilderness.

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

What’s God doing in the wilderness? The short answer is this: God’s connecting with us. God’s becoming vulnerable to learn exactly what it means to wrestle with human emotions. God already knows what it is to feel whole- What God receives as a human (at the beginning of his ministry) is an up-close and personal experience of the powerful forces that can break even the strongest of wills. And where does he learn this? Alone, in the wilderness.

The wilderness is often understood in spiritual terms as a dry and lonely place- a moment in our lives when we feel most vulnerable, most desperate. It’s an experience that can inflict tremendous pain and questioning. It might even be a place that possesses us with the temptation to give up. This is why I see the wilderness as a good metaphor for mental illness. And it’s in this vulnerable wilderness place that Jesus becomes fully human- not for his own sake, but for ours. Last week we learned of Jesus’ mountaintop transfiguration- and his immediate return to earth to cast out a boy’s unclean spirit. We also learned he calls upon his disciples to take up the mission of healing on earth when he ascends to heaven.

Here’s where I want to be very clear about what I said last week. We are the body of Christ in today’s world, yes, but we are NOT one another’s savior. No one in your family or faith community can save you (and it’s not your responsibility to save anyone else) from diseases of the body, mind, or spirit. We can act in love, but only Jesus has the power to save. Because we are only human, but Jesus is more- Jesus is human AND God. And he has this power to heal, because he humbled himself for our sake, beginning in this wilderness scene.

Okay, then what can we do as Christ’s body on earth? We can start by opening our eyes to those around us who might be silently suffering. Often in the wilderness of mental illness, we are not able to find a way forward without the support of those willing to take our hand. And in order to accompany a loved one through the wilderness, we have to know more about it.

I want to start by offering a few definitions. I’ll be using the National Institute of Mental Health as a baseline for our discussions over the next five weeks. It’s a fairly comprehensive body of data that’s peer-reviewed and reliable. (next week I will provide a resource insert).

Mental illness and co-occurring behaviors are so much a part of many of our lives, so thank goodness it’s receiving more attention and energy in broader culture for the purpose of diminishing its stigma. One great example recently is the Pierre Players rendition of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, a poignant play about the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon for friends and family of alcoholics. So many of the lines caught my attention, but since I wasn’t taking notes, I’ll share a few themes:

  • The first step to wellness is admitting they need help.
  • After decades of struggling independently with alcohol addiction, Bill and Dr. Bob realize they need one another to stay sober.
  • The key to maintaining sobriety is pursuing the help they need through meetings, sponsors, and lifestyle changes.

Here’s my favorite part of the play. Bob says, “Our service keeps us sober.” Helping others discover wellness actually improves our own wellness. We are social beings, created to be one another’s help in times of trouble. But the keys to success in accompanying each other through the wilderness is 1. Admitting we need help in the first place. 2. Understanding mental illness well enough to offer effective navigation.

Substance abuse, for example, is complex; it often co-occurs with other mental illnesses, and although I’m not offering any simple solutions today, I’d like to begin a conversation about how we cultivate communities of care where it’s safe to share our stories. As those of us who watched Bill W. and Dr. Bob saw, sharing your story doesn’t make your pain any less real, but it does validate your experience as worthy of care, and that can lead to healing. Whatever your wilderness might look like… depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, feelings of isolation, struggling with self-worth or body image, being in a profession that is lonely or underappreciated, dealing with financial hardship, struggling under the weight of a mental illness…the wilderness can be lonely, but the journey toward healing begins when our stories become validated in the stories of others. And as Jesus reveals in his own wilderness experience, in the stories of scripture. This Lent, let’s be in the wilderness together, and let’s find Christ along the way.

Oh God, we praise you for making us fleshy and fragile. Like you, oh Lord, our bodies are mysterious and complex and all together wonderful. May we see you in them. Amen.