By Allen White
We lost Robin Williams nearly a year ago. He was a beloved comedian and actor. In fact, he was so beloved that his name was one of the most searched in all of 2014 on Google. I wrote a post a few days after his death as a response to so many hateful things Christians were saying on the internet. That post was not only the most read post ever on my blog, but was also the most read post ever on Rick Warren’s pastors.com with over 1 million views. If you haven’t seen it, you can read it here.
As I conclude this series on the temperaments of group members and the potential for conflict and misunderstanding, I want us to look at the epidemic of mental illness. It’s not a temperament, but an illness that personally affects 1 in 4 adults or 61.5 million Americans (according to a 2013 report by the National Alliance of Mental Illness). Mental illness affects even more people than that including the family members, neighbors, co-workers, fellow group members, and many others in relationship with those who suffer.
So, what if Robin Williams was in your group?
1. We would have a lot of fun.
If you’ve ever seen Robin Williams on a talk show, you know he was a man of a thousand voices. He would move from one comedic rant to the next and never miss a beat. He really didn’t even need the talk show host. Robin was a one man show who only needed an audience, but it didn’t have to be a large audience.
The best man in my wedding has a brother who was the pilot of Disney’s jet. Most of his job was flying Michael Eisner, president of Disney at the time, around the country. On one flight, Robin Williams was a passenger. He was just as animated and dynamic with a few people on the plane as he ever was on any talk show.
If Robin was in my group, we’d certainly have our hands full, but we would also have a great time.
2. He would want to be “Robin” not Patch Adams or Mork from Ork.
Robin is known for so many beloved and sometimes zany characters, but like all of us, we just want to be accepted for who we are. He probably wouldn’t want us to impersonate his characters or rattle off zippy one liners. In my groups, I’ve never wanted to be regarded as “Pastor Allen.” For the group to work, I need to come to group and be “Allen.” Like all of us, he would like to be accepted as Robin, not a clown, not a showman, not our evening’s entertainment, but just himself.
3. We would learn to be more generous.
Both before but especially after his death, stories flowed about Robin William’s generosity. He required movie studios to hire a certain number of homeless people on the crew as part of his contract for a picture. So many personal stories have surfaced like buying a bike for Conan O’Brien when he was going through a rough time or giving Jessica Chastain a scholarship to attend Juilliard or tirelessly fundraising for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
Every year at Christmas Robin would visit the UCSF Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. In 2001, my son was a baby in the Intensive Care Nursery at UCSF and received a visit from Robin Williams along with all of the other children there. My wife and I missed the visit. Sam was only a month old and has no memory, but after Robin’s death, when I told him that special man had visited him when he was a baby, he was very touched.
I know of a lot of small groups who are very generous. Here in Greenville, South Carolina, the Holy Smokers from Brookwood Church cater an amazing meal for the homeless in the community. Groups have done so many things. But, I believe, Robin could show a group how to go even further.
4. The rest of us would have to remove our masks first and be patient.
The public was very shocked by the extent of Robin Williams’ depression that drove him to suicide. Suicide is a terrible decision in any life. Most of us can’t imagine the state of mind one would need to be in to feel you had no other choice, because we don’t struggle with the things he struggled with.
But, here’s the other thing, if our groups are just skimming the surface of a Bible study, we don’t really know what’s going on with anyone unless they are in enough pain to cry out for help without being shamed by the group. Participating in a small group is not a magic cure for anything. People can pretend to be okay in a group meeting just like they can pretend to have it all together in church, but that’s not okay.
If we ever expect anyone else to open up, we need to open up ourselves. We need to talk about what’s real, what’s hidden, what’s secret — these are the things with power over us. The things hidden in darkness must be exposed to the light. After all, the only thing that thrives in darkness is mold.
Let’s be honest — we’ve been in groups where a member announces a divorce and we didn’t even know there were marital problems. Or, someone files for bankruptcy and we didn’t know the extent of their struggle. There is no room for lone rangers in a group. You and I are not any better than anyone else. It’s time to let down our guard and admit that.
If we wanted Robin Williams or anyone else to open up, we would need to create the right environment. That includes showing our own vulnerability.
5. We would be out of our depth, but we would love everyone generously.
Most small groups are not equipped to deal with mental illness. From Schizophrenia to Bipolar Disorder to Depression, Substance Abuse, Autism and so much more, groups don’t know what to do or how to help. And, that’s okay.
There are doctors and medication and mental health professionals to help with mental illness. Groups are designed for belonging, acceptance, care and Bible study. Group leaders and members don’t need to become mental health experts, but they do need to show Christlike love to everyone God sends their way. While all of us can certainly learn more about mental illness, groups need to fulfill the purpose they are intended for and seek help when the needs go beyond the group’s goals.
If a group’s purpose turns to helping a single member who is struggling, then that person becomes the group’s “project,” and the group members reveal their own co-dependency. No one wants to be someone’s project. If the group is in over their heads, then they need to admit where they can help and where they can’t. There is a time to get other help.
We miss you Robin Williams. Thanks for bringing so much joy to the world. Our regret is you had to suffer so much.
By Allen White
By Allen White
Most people are well aware of actor Robin Williams’ passing this week. The public outpouring from every sector is tremendous. This man touched a lot of people’s lives. Whether they embraced him as Mork from Ork, or “Captain, my captain,” or a DJ in Vietnam, or a loveable, hope-inspiring doctor in Patch Adams, Robin Williams connected deeply in a lighthearted way with such a broad cross section of people. His inner child was his outer adult, which shows bravery most of us lack. But, pastor, before Robin Williams appears in your sermon, here are a few things to consider:
1. Suicide has had a Personal Effect on Your Congregation.
Somehow, someway, everyone’s lives are touched by suicide. For me, it was a friend who took his life during the last week of Bible college, because he lived in such turmoil he could see no way forward. Most people don’t consider suicide, but some do. Some of the people who hear your words will see a friend or loved one in Robin Williams’ coffin. Others will see themselves.
If you send Robin Williams to Hell, you are also sending their loved ones there. If you send Robin Williams to Heaven, what are you saying to those whose thoughts venture to suicide in their darker moments. I’m intentionally not saying where to take this, but I am encouraging you to think about this.
2. Finding Jesus is NOT the Cure for Depression.
God can heal physical and mental diseases. No doubt. Personally, I have prayed for people who have received miraculous healing. I’ve also prayed with people who received miraculous grace that got them through one day at a time.
If Robin Williams had died of cancer or heart disease, we might be more understanding. After all, many physical illnesses are incurable. Mental illness is also incurable. While mental illness can be managed and treated, it never goes away.
For some reason, especially in the church, we often judge people who are mentally ill as making poor choices in their lives or somehow not fully trusting in God. It’s almost as if physical impairments can’t be helped, but mental impairments just require people to simply try harder. If trying hard cured mental illness, then mental illness would be cured, because I don’t ‘know of anyone who tries harder to fit in or just function than people who struggle with these diseases.
There are plenty of Christians who love Jesus with all of their hearts and have committed their entire lives to him, yet they are Schizophrenic, Bipolar, Clinically Depressed or smitten with another illness. There are also Christians who love Jesus, and they struggle with diabetes, heart disease, obesity and a number of other mostly preventable conditions which are actually within their control. Their deaths may not be imminent, but they certainly will come sooner than they should.
Mental and spiritual matters seem more inseparable than physical and spiritual matters. The fine line between the soul and spirit is hard to navigate. Can our souls be saved, while our minds are “lost”? That doesn’t even make sense. We are whole beings. Yet, just as the Apostle Paul prayed for his tormenting illness to disappear, God offered grace instead of healing.
3. The Church Must Do Something.
People suffering from mental illness are often misunderstood and stigmatized. As hard as they try, they often don’t fit in. If they have a family, the family often feels like outsiders as well. Where can they find acceptance and understanding? If it’s not the church, then where?
What help and support does your church offer to those with mental illness and their caregivers and families? Are they welcome through your doors? When they come, are you prepared to accept them? Will you offer support? Are there organizations in your community that your church can partner with? At a minimum, could you offer a meeting room for a NAMI group for free? Are you familiar with Rick and Kay Warren’s conference at Saddleback called The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church?
People with mental illness are exceptional. Certainly every mentally ill person is not a comic genius like Robin Williams, but they are exceptional because they don’t fit into the norm. Institutions are best equipped to serve those in the norm — schools, government, even the church cater to the average Joe. Most institutions are either too small to have resources or are too large to deal with exceptions. Yet, there are families with autistic children (1 in 88 children now) who will never fit into your Sunday school without being a “behavior problem.” Should they just stay home? After all, there are 87 out of 88 to pursue.
No one is doing great work with the mentally ill. They are constantly shuffled back and forth from agency to agency. Most will end up in jail or homeless or dead. The church possesses the hope of the world. If anyone should care, shouldn’t it be the church? Begin to equip yourself, and God will use you. Be open.
Before you mention Robin Williams, do you truly understand his illness? It’s not easy to reconcile a life that brought so much pleasure to so many, yet was tormented by so much pain. Before you go there, what are you willing to do to help the next “Robin Williams” who walks through your church door?
It was probably too soon to write a blog post about Robin Williams. But, so many posts and comments are appearing that are condemning Robin Williams and judging him without truly knowing him or understanding his struggle. I felt I needed to saysomething. This is a tragic loss.
If you need a sermon illustration for Sunday, use something else. It’s too soon. Robin Williams affected many, many lives and means so much to so many. A trite sermon illustration does him a disservice. He was a very special person, exceptional even.
How Do I Meet the Emotional Needs of My Group Members?