According to the WHO, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. For that reason, I was really pleased recently to see a great new daily prayer feed appearing on the PrayerMate app recently. It’s from the Well Community in Dallas, Texas, and each day they’re sharing a prayer point from the “Sparks of Redemptive Grace” prayer guide by Catherine P. Downing — helping us pray for families affected by mental illness. I decided to reach out to Catherine to interview her about her experiences and about why she decided to write this prayer guide. You can read the interview below, or you can get the prayer guide on your smartphone through the PrayerMate app here.
The Sparks of Redemptive Grace prayer guide: how to pray for families affected by mental illness
PM: Tell us briefly some of what prompted you to write the book_, Sparks of Redemptive Grace: Seeking and Seeing God Amid a Loved One’s Mental Illness_?
C: There are two reasons I decided to share our family’s experiences of walking with our son through the morass of mental illness. First, because of stigma, few families are willing to tell others what life is like caring for a loved one dealing with mental health difficulties. However, because of this reluctance they are cut off from the care and support friends, extended family and church community might provide, if they only knew. I wrote of our journey so other families would know they are not alone, and to give them a resource they could share and say, “this story is similar to our own.”
Second, over the years I have met a number of Christian families on the same path. For some, their faith has taken a hit, while for others, their confidence in God’s love and goodness has actually deepened. As I considered ways my own relationship with God has been challenged — yet strengthened — with each new crisis, I thought an honest recounting of His faithfulness amid my fears and frustrations might be an encouragement to those whose own faith has become wobbly.
PM: Mental illness is obviously a huge issue that in many churches is rarely spoken about. Do you think Christianity has anything to say in the face of mental illness?
C: Plenty. But first the Church needs to appropriately address mental illnesses as the physical illnesses they are. Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other psychological conditions are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Because the brain is the organ that manages behavior, when that organ is malfunctioning behaviors can be disruptive and inappropriate. This can lead Christians to judge, reject and fear those whom Jesus calls us to love, comfort and include.
We don’t tell people with diabetes to stop taking their insulin and pray more. We don’t tell people with cancer to just have more faith. We tell them to attend to their physical needs while we kneel beside them to ask God for healing. We bring casseroles to their families when they are in the hospital. We understand that when they are able to attend church again they may not be able to sit through an entire service or they may not feel like coming to small group. But we invite them anyway. They are a part of the body and they are accepted despite their illness and the extra burden that might put on the church.
As Christians, we need to remember Jesus was drawn to, not repelled by, those in greatest need. He touched lepers. He ate with outcasts. He pursued the lost, the lonely and the left behind. What would He have us do with the suffering ones in our midst?
According to psychologist Dr. Matthew Stanford, co-founder of The Grace Alliance, “Because of the power of Christ within His people, our churches can be sanctuaries for the suffering. … God is sending those broken by mental illness to us so they might receive hope and healing. Mental health is the great mission field of the 21st century, and it is time the Church recognized its God-given role.” (http://hopeandhealingcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Matthew-Stanford-Rethinking-Mental-heathcare-Article.pdf.)
PM: Confronted with something like mental illness, we are often at a loss to know how to pray. What kinds of guiding principles did you have in mind when compiling your prayer guide?
C: The prayer guide was created in answer to this exact concern. As friends at church overcame stigma and began to exercise compassionate ministry to our family, they would ask what they could do to help. I would ask them to pray and they would respond, “How?” In coming up with an answer for them I thought of the very practical, day-to-day needs we have that they would not be aware of, and made a list of 31 kinds of things that families dealing with mental illnesses look to God to provide. Many of these topics are about the hidden challenges few friends would think to pray for.
For example, when a loved one has a difficult episode a caregiver may need to take time off from work. So we pray employers would be understanding and supportive. There can, sometimes, be entanglements with the legal system. So we pray for wisdom and resources to hire competent attorneys and for merciful judges. In addition, we always pray for healing and for sustaining faith.
One mother I met at a conference said her prayer group uses the guide every day. On one particular day the prayer topic was “Financial Resources.” Her daughter had been going through weeks of complexities with insurance regarding coverage for her prescriptions. On the day they prayed through that topic, the issue was resolved.
The PrayerMate App is a great way to thoughtfully incorporate topics like these into a daily prayer discipline! In addition to The Well Community, the prayer guide has been promoted by NAMI FaithNet and The Grace Alliance. The guide is also available online and as pamphlet at http://www.sparksofredemptivegrace.com/31days31ways2pray4families.
PM: Is there anything else you would like to say to people who are dealing with this issue personally?
C: You are not alone. God has not grown weary of your pleas for help. He IS ever-present and aware. There are others on your path. Find support groups and educational resources. Help those around you understand what they can do to help. Be an advocate to address stigma. The Sparks of Redemptive Grace Facebook page and blog regularly offer encouragement and information to families.
Many thanks to Catherine for participating in this interview. Get the prayer guide through the free PrayerMate app via The Well Community feed .