God calls us each where we are. I have been a seeker, struggling with the call of God since I was in my early twenties. Over the last two decades, I have carried a heavy burden, believing that I was not responding to God’s call, that I was disobeying God’s will. Yet, in spiritual direction when I was thirty, I was advised that my call at that time was to take care of my health, my mental health, and that my deep desire for a husband and children was also a calling. I have taken significant progress in obtaining the proper care for my mental illness, yet I feel more vulnerable now than ever before.
Jeremiah (20:9) shared his experience that genuine call took more energy to stifle than to release. I have tried to stifle the call, told myself that I was unworthy, too broken. Doing so has caused me great pain and anguish. Before applying to and being accepted by Fuller Theological Seminary, I told my husband that I would be sinning if I did not attend seminary. He responded that that was ridiculous. I countered that if God tells me to go to seminary, and I don’t, then I would be disobeying God, not following his will, not saying “Yes!” to God. Before I responded “Yes!” to God, I feared doing so and attempted, like Jeremiah, to squelch God’s call:
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
Jer 20:9 (NRSV)
For me discerning God’s call meant first of all trying to make sense of seemingly mystical experiences I had when I was twenty-one. Either God was calling me to the ordained ministry or I was hallucinating and therefore mentally ill. Since I had experienced severe depression three years prior to my first euphoric out-of-body experience, I had reason to doubt the reality of what I was experiencing. When I was an eighteen-year old freshman at UCLA, I became severely depressed, suffering hell on earth through no fault of my own. At that time, I irrationally believed that my family, and in fact the entire world, would be better off without me. Mind you that at the time I was very active on campus, volunteering at the UCLA Medical Center and training to be a peer health counselor. God called me through these activities to serve and minister to others. Still, I did not recognize my own value in God’s plan.
Back then, I considered myself an agnostic. I questioned the existence of God. I could not deny that He existed, for that would be arrogant; but I could not claim that He did exist, for I thought that also arrogant. I did not understand faith and did not discern the loving presence of Jesus in my life. Nor did I allow myself to experience life as a gift from a loving and forgiving God. During this time, my maternal grandfather with whom I had much in common, told my mother that what I needed was God in life. My parents had raised us to be skeptical. We did not go to church and did not experience Christian community.
When this same grandfather died, I was asked to give his eulogy and was honored to do so. In his eulogy I highlighted my grandfather’s gifts, many of which we shared. My grandfather was a colorful, passionate, and compassionate man, a natural orator and actor. Returning from his memorial mass, I was driving on the San Francisco Bay Bridge and started to have an out-of-body experience, which felt like all the negative energy in my body and soul was being pushed out by a positive energy. Very powerful. Shook me body and soul. Subsequently, for a period of time, I went in and out of trance-like states at will, using a candle and self hypnosis. Sometimes going to places of light – grounding ecstatic experiences where in loss of self, my real self was revealed; other times to dark, seductive, deceptive places (come here, I am the way) – where the loss of self was to oblivion, madness, evil darkness. I stopped going into these altered states because I sensed that what I was doing was dangerous. I did not ask for the first experience, that happened to me and not by my hand. By what right was I playing with something I did not understand. I knew that I needed a religious grounding, one that was safe, not at risk of abuse, not a cult. Would others would see my experiences as mental illness? At that time, I did not believe that they were, but in the back of mind I knew it was a possibility, especially given the fact that I had struggled with mental illness – severe depression.
I turned to the Roman Catholic Church, for that was the church of my extended family, my heritage. While working toward confirmation, I could not reconcile this nagging feeling that God was calling me to the ordained ministry with the fact that the Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women.
At my last job as a psychotherapist working with adolescents who had severe emotional disturbances, I had mentioned to a Christian co-worker that I had this troubling sense that I was supposed to be doing something else. He immediately and without question, stated, “Oh, that’s because you have a call.” I was blown away because over the course of years I had been debating the meaning of this inner feeling, and here he hears only the smallest hint of it and he has no doubt – his faith was far stronger than mine. Due to depression, I ended up leaving this position, and eventually my profession as a psychotherapist.
In the midst of this breakdown, I confirmed my faith in the Episcopal church, similar to the Roman Catholic Church in liturgy, ritual and theology. I had a series of mystical experiences and unexplained coincidences where God called me to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Benicia, California. The congregation which confirmed me was spirit filled and lovingly helped me during a time of great need. During the manic phase of my breakdown, speeding through my mind were thoughts regarding the Christian mystics, chaos theory and binary language (which I didn’t know how to translate, of course). The content was of a highly religious nature. Luckily the mania did not steer me toward any harmful behavior, no spending spree, no promiscuity. Around this time, I sought spiritual direction and mental health treatment. My church community was unconditionally supportive and concerned for my well-being.
Once I had my breakdown at thirty, I did not feel that I was able to continue working as a psychotherapist. I was too fragile. Since then, I have felt guilty that I have not ministered to the world as I did when I was in my teens and twenties. I had volunteered in hospitals, lobbied for social justice and the environment, helped battered women and their children, counseled pregnant and parenting teens, and treated children and adolescents with severe mental illness.
My spiritual director at the time told me that marriage and parenthood are calls, and that God calls me to take care of myself, my mental health. These calls had to be addressed before any call to the seminary.
My focus since then has been on marriage and starting a family. God calls me to lovingly parent my wonderful yet sometimes challenging young energetic son. God calls me to love and support my husband. Life is not always easy, but that is not to say it is without value and meaning. We have love, faith, family and friends, community, and God loves us. I remind myself to not worry (Matthew 6:25-34):
Do Not Worry
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Matt 6:25-34 (NRSV)
Not surprisingly, I have found myself overwhelmed by life. Still I continue to believe that God is calling me to pick myself up and walk his path. I have faith that this is the right thing to do. Once my son was in kindergarten and I was no longer working outside the home, I had the opportunity to begin my seminary studies.
Given my struggles with mental illness, my experience as a psychotherapist, and my sense of God’s call to the ordained ministry, I believe that God may be calling me to a mental health ministry. In the class Empowering the People of God, I wrote a mental health ministry training manual. When researching for this paper, I found many resources and ministries that serve those with mental illness and their families within the faith community. I have found that many of those with mental illness see their faith in God as fundamental to their healing. As Christians, we must recognize this need and lovingly minister to those with mental illness and their families.
God calls us in our brokenness to become whole in him, to reconcile ourselves to him, and to receive his healing love. When I allow God to use me to do his work – I feel great joy. Uplifting another soul uplifts my own.
– First written Fall 2005 while attending Fuller Theological Seminary