My feet stand on level ground; in the great congregation I will praise the Lord. (Psalm 22.6)
Faith gives you an inner strength and a sense of balance and perspective in life. ~ Gregory Peck
The past 10 days I have enjoyed beautiful balance. It’s a precious gift. Not something I experience very often. I don’t rely on it, as it is so rare and fleeting. But I will enjoy it while it lasts.
As someone with bipolar, balance is not something I can readily achieve. Certainly, there are ways I can avoid aggravating our condition to extremes. Things I’ve been doing over the past 10 days that boost the watchdog chemicals in my brain — serotonin (combatting mood swings) and dopamine (battling depression). Things like going for a morning walk. Avoiding excess sugars and alcohol. Prayer and reflection on Scripture. Regular and ample sleep. All of these things have contributed to my well-being. I feel deliriously exuberant.
Yet I can not take credit for how I feel. It is not merely the result of personal discipline, anymore than depression is directly caused by sloth. I walk on level ground because the pioneer of my faith has paved the way. There are still peaks and valleys, but the Spirit of Christ makes them manageable by being with us each step of the way. Faith in Christ, or, said better, the faith of Christ that lives in me gives us the strength to climb rugged mountains and the light to pass through dark valleys. This faith keeps me from falling off cliffs when we are pushed to the brink. Faith gives me eyes to see that the world does not spin around me yet I do have the power to do the best I can do.
My primary purpose in this life is to praise God and enjoy him forever. Praising God is my delightful duty. It is through praise that I experience the best measure of balance I possibly can. Some believe they can best worship God in nature or through their TV, computer screen, or radio. But can we dutifully praise God without participating in a body of believers? A congregation of saintly sinners. A fellowship of fractured souls. How can I, how can we all, best praise the Lord who makes it possible for us to move forward in faith? Is there a distinction to be made between a great congregation and a wicked one? Or, in the language of modern culture, a healthy church and a toxic one?
There have been many times in my life where my faith was both encouraged and challenged in church. When I was diagnosed with a mental illness, I was a pastor with a young family and few resources. I had no idea what I would do or how I could do it. My church rallied around me and made it possible for us to pay our bills, maintain employment, and rebuild our ministry. As our children grew, the faith fellowship prayed for them, shared Christ’s love with them, and showed them grace and understanding as they struggled to live up to expectations as pastor’s kids (PKs). I have served healthy and holy congregations where each believer was encouraged to put their gifts to good use for the glory of God.
Yet I have also seen the seedy side of church life. Families who control financial resources, directing gifts for their own benefit. Men domineering over women in leadership that is anything but Christ-like. Members who expect the pastor to be their Savior, placing their faith in him/her, rather than Christ. I have shared my faith with these congregations, cared for them as a shepherd, given them my best, and many times I have been deeply wounded as I tried to protect the flock from predator attacks.
Since leaving pastoral ministry, I continue to experience a mixed bag of blessings and curses. When I was near homeless, a church paid for me to stay in a hotel while I gathered resources and found an apartment. An elder devoted his Fridays to walking with me and carefully listened to me sort out my illness in light of my faith. I became part of a small group where I was encouraged to share my reflections on God’s Word and apply them to my life, as crazy as it was. All these things helped me grow and mature and reclaim my identity not just as someone with bipolar, but as one who belongs to Christ.
Yet, there have been many occasions where I ran into dividing walls that prevented me from praising God in the great (or not-so-great) congregation. As a stranger who had no car, I found it odd that no one offered me a ride to worship or fellowship events. Still, I took the bus, or walked. I tried to become involved as best I could and it seemed I was often overlooked. Maybe I tried too hard. Maybe I came across as too intense. Maybe people didn’t know what to make of me. A single, middle-aged man? What’s that all about? A former pastor? Did he get kicked out? Mentally ill? Can I trust him?
While I have felt wrongly judged by believers at times, I continue to crave praising God in an authentic body, one that honestly shares the Gospel in what it says and does. I believe my spiritual and psychological balance hinges on investing my faith in a healthy, holy church. I will not be diverted from my delightful duty even by those who claim to love God yet refuse to love others, putting rules before relationships, hiding behind a guise of godliness, a ruse of righteousness.
In the meantime, I will continue to stand on solid ground, following the Lord along a level path as best I can. I will praise God in the great congregation not just because it feels good but because it is what gives me perspective and balance. More than this, it is my primary purpose and ultimate aim.