I was privileged to be a part of Saddleback Church’s “The Gathering: Mental Illness and the Church” conference last month, a historic day sponsored together with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and the National Alliance on Mentally Illness-Orange County. It was the first time the Church made the commitment on a national scale to be a physical and spiritual resource for those with mental illness.
There were notable speakers as the day was full of credible, timely information, and a focus on reducing stigma and integrating mental illness as part of the church’s scope of ministry. I was struck by the diversity of people attending and presenting at the conference. It was visibly similar to other large Christian conferences, but the many differences in the people, including their cultures, fashions, and generations was striking to me.
And yet despite the diversity, I witnessed “unity” throughout the day. “Unity” is a term we hear often, and although it is meant to speak to a positive singleness of purpose, it can also enable a wish for unhealthy uniformity and social control.
We all find comfort in uniformity, being the “same,” and being around the “same” kinds of people with the “same” thoughts. It can be a psychologically unhealthy tendency, but very human to avoid differences and conflict, and wish to be included. This can lead to unhealthy processes of shame, guilt and feeling left out for not “fitting in.”
We were not created to be uniform creatures. God created us in His image, but He rejoices and loves us in our individuality and uniquely created identity. He created us as an artist creates his masterpiece. Each work of art is unique. We were built to express and experience a separate, distinct, wonderful self, built in “His image,” but not an identical copy of others. Trying to be “the same” denies our uniqueness. It leads us away from whom and from what God created us for.
At the Saddleback conference, there was affirmation in the diversity of the human experience, in its suffering and redemption. There were stories of great pain and illness but also stories of joy. There were stories of isolation but also of connection.
As a psychiatrist, I see that diversity on a daily basis, as people suffer and heal from mental illness. At the conference, I saw this same diversity along with healthy unity. I saw that all were brought together out of diverse pain, yearning for community. There is community in the search for spiritual meaning in suffering.
This was truly a special day. There was diversity in the body, but unity in the shared acceptance of imperfection. There was community in brokenness. There was joy in communion, between those with illness, those in support of the ill, and those who were not ill but just as imperfect. It was a joy to see the church as the resource for spiritual meaning within that experience, providing communion for all who share the same hope of our Savior, who loves the broken.
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
Psalm 147:3 (NIV)