Mental health and pizza

Let me tell you the story of pizza that saves lives.

Well, friends save lives, Jesus saves lives, but pizza is sometimes the simple tool that God uses to make a difference.

We were in the middle of a mental health crisis. No one really likes to talk mental health. We have some level of basic communication on the topic, some good, some unhelpful, general phrases, like

“You should go see a counselor.”

“God brings good out of everything.”

“You’ve got to keep on top of that, make good choices.”

If there was ever a disease we were afraid of catching it’s mental health. There are no Puffs commercials for depression, no home health ad for schizophrenia. Even anxiety is a seen as a personal problem – pray more, worry less! Be grateful!

But let me tell you that mental health comes in your back door like an old high school acquaintance you thought you lost touch with, whom you had no idea was still connected to your life, except for in vague terms, like genetics or a strange uncle who talks funny.

Mental health is, however, whether we care to admit it or not, shockingly universal. Everyone’s stories are different, the diagnoses are different, but we all have the basic gene pool, to create a mental health struggle. No one is exempt, or “better made”. Sin effects our lives and world in frustrating ways – how many of you have family members touched by

addiction

dementia

anxiety

depression

learning disabilities

autism

trauma and distress?

People often back up and back away when mental health enters the scene.

They don’t want to “catch” the mental health cooties (not a thing, fyi). And our culture, while throwing around sexual innuendo and intimate family dynamics on tv and movie screens daily, does not like to be confronted by someone else’s drama when it lives next door.

But what if instead, we brought pizza.

In the middle of our struggles, two of my friends walked in the door, straight through my mess, toting a large pizza, an order of breadsticks, and a two liter of pop to share. They visited. They sat around my table and made me laugh. They asked questions and didn’t offer easy answers. They may have offered some help, but what I really remember is that they offered normalcy. They didn’t look at me like I was scary and had two heads. They were ok with being part of it, even if whatever it was looked kind of messy.

Mental health isn’t discriminating. Most of us will be touched by it somewhere along the road. And we have the ability to change the tide. We don’t have to be therapists or medical doctors, or even super close amazing friends. All we have to do is bear a pizza and say,

“Hi.”

“This stinks.”

“I love you.”

“I still think you matter.”

People did minister and care for us in so many ways, I don’t want to dismiss that. I’m very thankful that so many people jumped right over awkward, weird, and scary and offered affection and care.

But sometimes, I think we just need to keep it simple.

Sometimes we need to know that it starts with a single pizza.

For every Lutheran teacher – Thank You!

Kindergarten is a big transition for any kid. For our littlest, it was an epic transition.

I’m not sure who was more scared- me or him. But, you know, some things in life you bite the big one and suck it up. You hold on to your hats and pack that Star Wars backpack and say jolly things like,

“It’ll be great!”

“You’ll make so many friends!”

“I hear there are markers, and snacks, and three recesses!”

You’re over-happy-words fall flat, receiving only the grouchy look of a 5-year-old barely containing his rage at a world that is too noisy, too scratchy, and just a lot of work.

Enter Ms. Tinkey, and Mr. Kumm, and Mrs. Leonard, and Mrs. Baer and all the people who make the world a better place to be, one child at a time.

Zeke wasn’t just unsure of new places and new faces. For him, this was torture. Going to a new place, having a new routine, was like signing up to listen to nails scraping down the walls of the chalkboard, the sound of dial up internet stinging your eardrums, every moment, every day for the first month and a half of school.

This is sensory overload on steroids.

And I came with my delightful checklist.

“So, he’s gluten free and we try to avoid food dyes, especially the red ones. Sorry.”

“He hates holding a pencil, so if there’s an assignment he can use a marker on sometimes, that helps a lot. Sorry.”

“Sometimes he just needs a moment. Or 12 moments. Or 42 moments. I’m so sorry.”

And to everything I recited, Ms. Tinkey smiled and said, “Yes! We can work on that!” with actual joy. Not just fake niceties, but compassion and perseverance shining through. You see, some kids don’t receive services or have special classrooms, but they need a little extra touch of care. Teachers and helpers throughout the building made it their personal mission to turn that scared, grouchy face into a smiling, happy boy, who wanted to be there. A smile, a high five, the ability to turn down a high five if desired, persistent affection…all these things go a long way for spectrum kids, indeed, for any kid.

This, my friends, is the Lutheran School difference. The staff at Zeke’s school don’t get up to teach and shape the world every day.

They get up to show Jesus to every child every day as well. 

I’m pretty sure that they get tired. I’m sure they get frustrated. I’m sure they wonder if it makes any difference at all.

This blog would simply like to say yes, yes it does.

Your work in reaching in to little hearts, to growing hearts, is vital for my family and for countless other families out there. The world is a better place not because you showed up to work, but because you showed up in their lives. You are woven into the fabric of who they are becoming as teachers and leaders and workers in the kingdom of God and the body of Christ.

You make an eternal mark by being you.

Thank you.

A special kindergarten teacher once taught us this fun little song, that fits perfectly here…

Keep loving on those kids. Keep supporting those families. Keep sharing Jesus. Keep being you.

Happy National Lutheran School’s Week!
*as always, no Zeke’s were hurt in the making of this blog. His permission was asked and granted to share his story.

Jumping Off the Communion Rail: Worshipping with my little one

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
Psalm 84:1-2
IMG_0889
 
 
Jumping off the Communion Rail
Or Finding Joy with Little Ones in Worship
 
My son Ezekiel, at the tender age of three was a bit of a challenge. A bit might be be short hand for “Lord have mercy on our house.” Zeke is one of the lights of my life. He is nothing less than a beautiful gift from God. And he brings a lot of pizazz and energy into our household. Please hear me as I say, I treasure him.
 
Zeke is diagnosed with high functioning autism spectrum. He has numerous sensory input concerns. In his early years he detested things touching his hands, sitting with his legs dangling, ingesting food in general, the sound of side conversations, and most of all- congregational singing.
 
Church was a struggle for him to say the least. That congregational singing got him every time. I recently read an article about quiet services for autistic children, with less singing and no instruments. This is the kind of thing that would have appealed to Zeke when he was small and may have made church a whole lot more bearable for us. This wasn’t our reality however, so when the organ started playing, Zeke would lay his entire body on the floor of the church aisle, or under a pew, or in the narthex to make it bearable. People at church were good about it, but I know it came off looking like a giant toddler fit, or lazy parenting, or at the very least, just plain weird.
 
I just wanted to worship. And more than that, I wanted Ezekiel to worship. I wanted so badly for him to find tiny sparks of joy in the service, in the Word, in His people surrounding us. Doesn’t every mother want that for her child? How was I going to convince him to follow this for His whole life, if each and every Sunday it was literal misery for his poor little soul. Granted, I was fully versed in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit does His work and this was not my responsibility, but a momma’s heart hurt for want of some sign, any sign that He was hearing Jesus in the midst of it all.
 
And then, it came.
 
One day, we walked up to take communion with my husband. I lined up the troops and we waited calmly for our turn. We reached the altar and kneeled as a family. We took the body and blood, the prayers over us, the blessings on their little heads. We stood up. My husband stepped back behind the rail, and I marched 10 feet out the side door.
 
There is one step down from the cancible before you get to the aisle to return to your seat. This Sunday, Zeke slowed down and stopped at the step. He turned back and looked at me, broke into a smile and jumped with all his might off that step, bursting in to the sweetest quiet little giggles the world has even known.
 
Zeke muscled through worship each Sunday, but when it came time for that step, each and every week, he jumped wholeheartedly off it. He giggled and walked on. I spoke words of praise to a Creator who gave my son a little worship joy through something as mundane as a step.
 
One day, Zeke bounded off the step and one of our elders in charge of communion asked me nicely, “Can you ask him to stop jumping off that step?”
 
He meant well, he really did. And I’m sure that each of you can see the problem. Loud preschooler, exuberantly jumping full force near the front of the church. I think to some it probably came off as deeply disrespectful, at the very least a little rude or inconsiderate. We’re a people of God, with all kind of ideas about what worship looks like and at some point we do need to be respectful of that.
 
But my answer in this instance was, “No.”
 
Later I explained, “This is what Zeke has. This is his worship joy. This is the moment he looks forward to every Sunday morning. I just can’t take that from him.”
 
A missionary friend of mine said it best, “Shouldn’t we all be jumping off the communion step anyway?” And she’s right. Body of Christ! Shed for me! Which part of worship wells up in you and gives you even the simplest joy? What’s your metaphoric step, that place where the Word meets your ears, the grace of the place fills your heart, and you know it’s safe to jump in with your whole self, unabashed.
 
Our sweet elder understood. It just took a simple conversation. I learn so much from our beautiful boy everyday.
 
Zeke’s five years old now. God has brought him so far. He no longer needs to lay on the floor to comfort himself in worship. Last week, he sang “Thank the Lord and Sing His praise” with the chorus of all those around him.
 

 

And he still jumps off that step and I will be the last one to stop him. 

A Call to Action: Grace and Mental Health

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I have to say it. I, for one, am so excited to see the open window for mental health in our culture and in our churches, recently. I see more and more posts on mental health care on the web, our church synod has a task force for domestic violence and abuse, there are conferences and committees to address support and care in many denominations.

This, my friends, is a long time in coming. Two years ago, at a conference, I heard a speaker call mental health the “mission field of the 21st Century” and I could not agree more. It is time. The silence has lasted long enough. The darkness of despair and anxiety and struggle has been overcome by the blood of the Lamb. He waits with healing and grace. We can be that voice of grace for those around us.

But how does that work? What does grace look like when it’s living and active and poured out, particularly in the realm of mental health? Here are some suggestions for churches, church workers, and any one of us ready to answer the call to Grace for the hurting.

John 1:16 tells us that we have all received grace upon grace.

Praise be to God that we can let that grace roll out onto all of those around us!

Find out more

It’s easy to assume that we know. We’ve read a few blog articles about depression, so we “get” mental health. But the needs in mental health are so much broader and wider. Here is just a tiny list of struggles that can be addressed in grace:

anxiety (an estimated 10-18% of the population identifies a diagnosable struggle with anxiety, myself included!)

depression – including seasonal, major depressive episodes, and postpartum

Autism Spectrum and other sensory processing

learning disabilities

sexual abuse and assault

domestic violence

trauma of all sorts

Bipolar

Schizophrenia

addictions

eating disorders

This list is not meant to be exclusive. I could go on and on. What struggle knocks on the door of your heart? Find out more, ask questions, use appropriate terminology and language. Educate others on the issue and just be mindful that these are not random and rare issues in people’s lives. They are much more common than we think, for those inside the Church, as well as those disconnected from the Church.

Grace – reaching out by learning and growing.

Offer community

Mental health can be one of the loneliest places on earth. Whether the stigma is real or imagined or both, it’s not something we talk about in our culture and our churches. Burst open the door! Make your church, your home, your small group a place where it is talked about, prayed for, and actively reaching out. We, as a church, have the amazing opportunity to be a family to those who feel lonely, distressed, and even tormented. It is time to bury the idea that we are unsafe around people with diagnoses. Those with severe and persistent diagnoses need us even more! Research shows that community and social support is one of the largest indicators of success in mental health treatment. People take needed medicines when they have loving friends who check in on them and ask hard questions. People can break the chains of addiction when there are people who do not give up on them.

Grace – offering community, even when it’s hard.

Speak Forgiveness and Life and God’s constant pursuit of us

Psalm 103:4 – “who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…”

Matthew 11:28 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Luke 19:10 – “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Jesus forgives anything we have done or left undone. So many people need to hear these words from the mouth of a living and breathing person. They need to know that God does not give up on them, that He pursues and pursues. That He runs down the road with His robes flying about, waiting to embrace us. Many people that struggle with mental health wonder about their worthiness. It is easy for even anxiety to ostracize people from the love God is trying to pour into them. Individuals often feel afraid to admit that they are afraid when well meaning people cite Scripture that tells us not to be afraid! Share verses that share Who God is, rather than what people should do.

Grace – for the weary soul.

Love, Love, and More Love

Some people are hard to love. Some people are worried that they are hard to love. Some people have a hard time loving. We can let God fill us with His love and then we can share it, even when it gets hard. What does love look like? Sometimes it looks like pouring out affection and time and energy, and sometimes it looks like hard boundaries spoken firmly, but kindly.

Grace – speaking the Truth in love.

Be Faithful

Loyalty is hard when relationships so often disappoint us. People will never be perfect, they will never love perfect or talk perfect or follow through perfect. We have the same Grace that we get to offer others. Often times, people want to give up, both those struggling with mental health issues and those supporting them. Families of those with mental health struggles perhaps need the most support and encouragement. We can love by being true to our promises and not giving up. We can give grace by being someone’s personal encourager and sounding board and safe place. When the going gets tough, the tough pour on more Grace. 

What an awesome season the Lord has before us! We as a church stand in the midst of a perfect time to be real and in tune with the needs of those around us.

Bring on the Grace church! Bring on the Grace.

 

Autism, #27, and inviting people in


“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
                                                                Ephesians 4:25

Session one of learn to play hockey ended last night. Not a huge deal in most people’s world, but in ours, it is. 

Zeke desperately wanted to play hockey. He watched his big brother play his heart out and imagined himself on the ice. He bought his own whistle, so that he could pretend to referee the other kids playing. He strapped on skates for an open skate and stepped out onto the ice. He tentatively took little baby ice-skating steps. He did great, so we thought, “Ok, Zeke, let’s do hockey!” We bought him the shorts, and the pads, and the stick for his birthday. 

The first night, we took out all the gear from our bag, along with the 20 or so other parents, all eagerly awaiting the unveiling of their tiny ice stars. We piled on the pads. We tightened the skates. And then it happened… Zeke walked onto the ice. I knew instantly that something was wrong. Zeke hunched himself over and skated almost like he was curled up in a ball. 

It was weird. Then it got worse. He started falling. And I don’t mean he fell a couple of times. He fell and fell and fell some more. He was clearly struggling. At one point he looked like a turtle stuck on his back.  

I heard the snickers around me. I glanced around and saw a couple of moms pointing and assumed the worst. My face flamed up. I could feel the embarrassment and then its cousin, shame, slowly creeping up my chest. I was texting with my friends, just to make it through the 50 minute lesson. 

“These women, they don’t know. How dare they laugh at Zeke!”
“There’s actual pointing going on! I’m rageful.”
“I’m just sad. Tears are rolling down my face. I wish this world was a better place for him. I just want it to be so much better.”

My friends comforted me and helped me sort through the anger, the frustration, and the shame. I realized that the equipment threw Zeke’s sensory system over the edge. The weight of a chest pad, too tight elbow pads, shin guards, and tightened skates, throw in a cold arena and slippery ice…it’s a lot for a sensory challenged kid. Looking back I was pretty impressed that Zeke wasn’t just screaming like a banchee (not an uncommon response to sensory challenges). 

I finally turned to one mom, channeled my inner Dr. Brene Brown, and made myself intensely vulnerable. I invited someone, a stranger, into my pain.

“This is so hard for me. He’s autistic. I just love him so much, but the equipment is just too much for him. And learning something new is hard. Skating is hard. He hates anything that’s hard and a struggle. Don’t we all, but it’s intense for him in a way that it probably isn’t for you or me.”

She smiled, “Look at them. They all are falling down. They all look a bit ridiculous, trying to stay standing up! It’s adorable.” In an instant my fear and anger and sadness dissipated. She pointed, not at my son, but her own, and then the myriad of skaters I failed to notice in my struggle, all trying to stay on two awkward skate blades. 

I realized that, while I do think some of the mamas could have been a bit more sensitive, I had created my own place of shame. I had wrapped myself in a blanket of embarrassment and disconnected from the reality of 30 or so little kids struggling through something new. I only saw my own little one’s pain and frustration and wanted so badly to take it away that I made up a story and pointed my rage at those around me.

And as life will, in the next moment it became supremely ironic…
I watched one coach skate over to Zeke and help him up. He dusted him off and then proceeded to spend the rest of the lesson giving him confidence, giving him props, and an arm to hold on to when he needed his bearings. The mom I was talking to pointed at the coach, “That’s my husband.” 

I said a small prayer – Thank you, God, for people, and care, and connection in this life.

Fast forward 8 weeks, hockey ended yesterday. I stood at the side of the ice with the moms. We laughed and talked about how far they have come. Little tiny skaters, falling down (much less!), getting back up, and having the time of their lives. 

I was so proud of my #27. He walked off the ice. They gave him a certificate and some pretty cool hockey cards, but I don’t think anything could mean as much as the fist bump waiting for him from that one coach. The coach who reached out and said with everything he did, “We’re in this together buddy. It’s hard work, but you can do it.”

One person, one mom, one coach. One moment made a supreme difference in my life, and in my son’s life. I’m so thankful that the Holy Spirit welled up and I was able to overcome all my assumptions and other made up stories in my head (another Brene Brown-ism).  

I could have gone through all of it, frustrated and hurt, raging at those around me, but I found truth, by inviting someone in. 

He can heal hidden hurts, bind up a broken heart, through kind and tender words, and through connection, one to another. 

For #27 and his mama, it made all the difference. 


*photo made with a vrsly overlay
*more on the stories in your head and connection in Dr. Brown’s book, Rising Strong