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Photo credit: By taliesin on morgueFile

Gordon and his partner Juno have been together for 13 years. They are proud and loving fathers to Holly, Gordon’s biological daughter via surrogate mother. Earlier this month Gordon and I chatted about the then forthcoming Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage upon which the U.S. awaited. He knew little of the details because he hasn’t been following the story.

Gordon shrugged. “We live in Texas.” I sensed resignation in his voice. “Whatever the Supreme Court decides, it won’t change our family life. Texas will remain reticent to legalize same sex marriage; and we will continue living as we have all of these years.”

After hearing a segment on NPR, I wonder if Gordon, Juno, and Holly’s life will indeed change, or at least be affected.

NPR recalled a report of the National Institute of Mental Health published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2010. It revealed the results of a mental health study conducted in 2004 and 2005, before and after several states passed same-sex marriage bans. The control group was homosexual persons living in mutual, committed relationships in states that banned same-sex marriage. Married heterosexual people, and committed homosexual people living in states where gay marriage is legal were variable groups. The outcome presents disconcerting news for the control group.

“Lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals who lived in the states that banned same-sex marriage experienced a significant increase in psychiatric disorders,” says Mark Hatzenbuehler, a psychologist at Columbia University who studies the health effects of social policies. He analyzed the data gathered before and after the bans to determine how the mental health of people who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual had changed in those states.

“There was a 37 percent increase in mood disorders,” he says, “a 42 percent increase in alcohol-use disorders, and — I think really strikingly — a 248 percent increase in generalized anxiety disorders.”

Translation: whether or not a committed homosexual relationship is seen by society as acceptable likely has an effect on gay and lesbian people’s mental health (or lack thereof).

What a ministry opportunity this is for the Church. In her recently published book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), author Amy Simpson calls the Church to better care and behavior towards mentally ill people. In Simpson’s own study of 500 churches across the U.S., 98% of pastors acknowledged seeing some type of mental illness within their congregations.

photo credit: darcyadelaide via photopin cc

photo credit: darcyadelaide via photopin cc

This makes sense considering a November 2012 report of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration citing that 1 in 5 American adults suffer from mental disorders and illness, and a May 2013 report of the Centers for Disease Control saying that the same statistic is true for American children.

Mentally ill people are in our pews, including me. I struggle with chronic depression and anxiety. And unlike those who are physically ill, the church does little to care for this population. Reasons abound. We are neither well prepared nor educated; there is a huge social stigma surrounding mental illness, and people bury their diagnosis under shame and fear; sometimes, suffering people are quite needy and their behavior is inappropriate; and some Christians may believe that the person’s behavior is caused by demonic possession.

Sadly, only 3% of church leaders feel equipped to minister to sufferers of mental disorders, according to Simpson’s survey.

“We can’t change everything about the suffering of mental illness and its treatment,” Simpson writes. “We can’t take mental illness away. But we can do better in the life of the church. We can extend the humanizing, loving, friendship every person needs” (96).

A move in that direction would bring us closer to fulfilling one of the two greatest commands that Jesus gave to his disciples (read: us) — love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). And how, exactly, are we to be neighborly? By showing someone mercy (Luke 10:37).

Put all of this together, mix it up, and what have we got?

A Church that heeds the call to care well for the mentally ill. A church that extends love and mercy to LGBTQ sisters and brothers who suffer from mental disorders and alcoholism in states where same-sex marriage is banned. A church that may just look like the ragtag group of peeps who Jesus loved on and gathered around him in his day.

This (and more) is exactly the vision of church that Margot Starbuck casts in her new book Permission Granted: And Other Thoughts on Living Graciously Among Sinners and Saints (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2013).

Amongst other gold nuggets, Starbuck addresses the fear that some (many?) evangelical Christians have. The question begs, “Would simply loving and supporting an LGBTQ person (without trying to dissuade them from their lifestyle) communicate to the person and others that I condone homosexual behavior?”

Starbuck answers this by pointing us towards our Savior.

If Christians’ presence amongst and merciful love towards folk deemed as sinners is an implicit endorsement of their behavior, then Jesus is not the man a lot of us think he is, Starbuck says.

“According to this line of thinking, [Jesus is] pro-prostitution, pro-extortion, pro-adultery, pro-gluttony, pro-hypocrisy, pro-drunkenness, and pro-syncretism. The twisty logic says that if you [mercifully love a sinner with neither judgment nor agenda to change her or him], you necessarily condone everything about that person. Even if you don’t. Whether or not Jesus condoned or condemned the behavior of sinners, he did [love them]. He recognized what was, without signs of anxiety or distress when others failed to behave the ways he thought maybe they should” (231).

Christians are called to do the same. The Church is called to do the same. No condoning, no condemning. Just merciful loving, and letting God take care of redemption.

Once at a sleepover, a teammate of Holly’s asked her where her mother is, as no one ever sees her at practices and games. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Holly answered shortly. Her face flushed, and her body tensed up. She removed herself from the fun for a while, and was not her usual jovial self the rest of the night.

Even at 9-years-old, shame and anxiety threaten to drown the light of God within.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

What do we have here? The sad, but true commonality of mental illness. A group of people who almost universally feel unwelcome at Christian churches and gatherings. Landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court released today. A potential increase in mental disorders in states that continue to ban same-sex marriage, despite the Court’s rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 as unconstitutional.

This historic convergence of events and phenomenon gives the Church an opportunity to be what it is called to be: people called out to share the merciful love of Christ and the good news of redemption in Christ.

Oh Lord, may it be so!

Questions for y’all:

  • Is the church capable of loving people without trying to change them?

  • How might (or might not) you relate with the “evangelical question” that Margot Starbuck posed?