In early June, a sermon was delivered by a mother-daughter team in Tiefengrund Rosenort Mennonite Church in Saskatchewan. The daughter, Abby, is 12.
From time to time, the growing whiteness of my hair and whiskers seems to dictate that I offer opinions about how we do church. About how we obsess over smoothness and perfect timing, and dulcet tones and perfect cadence. We put on a Sunday language that feels, and is, awkward in the workplace or schoolyard. We express ourselves in ways that set us apart from—perhaps above—the unwashed masses.
Then came Abby.
A decision was made that on the first Sunday in June, the youth would take responsibility for the service. Abby suggested a favourite story, “Daniel in the lions’ den.” Someone, an adult, asked Abby if she would offer the meditation. She felt a little obligated, I’m guessing, and consented.
Abby and her mom decided that the lions’ den would be a metaphor for all the things that threaten us in our complicated lives. Abby would acknowledge some of her own struggles, the complications of her 12-year-old life, and then go on to talk about how she experienced God’s protection and support within those struggles.
What, you might wonder, could muddle the life of a much-loved 12-year-old, who is adored by her family, has a wacky sense of humour, is stubborn up to here, and who is gifted academically, musically and artistically? At an age when children are notoriously self-absorbed, what could chase lions into Abby’s den?
“For me, that has been my ongoing struggle with anxiety and depression,” Abby admitted. “Anxiety is my lions’ den.”
She went on to describe her growing realization that her fears were isolating her, preventing her from forming relationships with her peers. She talked about “being trapped in my head.”
Then Abby described the moment when things began to change. She invited her parents into her despair. From there, she told us, “I feel like God sent some reinforcements into my lions’ den.” She mentioned a growing courage to speak out. She mentioned the steadfast support of family. She pointed to a medical community that cared about her mental health, and she cited her gift of music and love of reading.
The line that moved me the deepest was about God bringing “my dog Millie [a huge, black, Newfoundlander brute] into my life. She is the best therapy a person could ask for. She never lets me down, she stands between me and my lions.”
Congregants were all challenged to name their own dens, and the lions that circulate there. Then Abby sat down.
After the service, as folks gathered around her, Abby just wanted to go home. She was exhausted.
As moving and emotional as that message was for me, there was another realization that was striking. To a significant degree, this was not a huge stretch for Abby. This was more a-matter-of-fact telling about a piece of her life.
I’m sure Abby didn’t sniff the huge stigma that earlier generations have placed upon mental-health matters. She didn’t know that two generations earlier, when her grandparents were in her place in grade school, there was no awareness, no language and certainly no pulpit connected to the topic of mental health. Even a generation ago, when her parents filled that 12-year-old space, there was only a tiny bit more acknowledgement, but still little healthy language, and, in my awareness, no more pulpit time given.
“A child shall lead them.”
Ed Olfert (firstname.lastname@example.org) continues to peer around corners and under things to see God. In the interest of full disclosure: Abby and her mother share Ed’s genes.
—Updated July 24, 2019