Monday, January 25, 2021

Book Review: Blessed Union by Sarah Griffith Lund

What is blessed about a union marked by mental illness? How can a marriage impacted by mental illness be a blessing? God blesses every part of our being, even the parts we are too ashamed to mention. Mental illness, like any other health condition, can be blessed by God. God can take our health conditions and bless them by granting us strength to endure, courage to persevere, and hope to overcome despair. - Sarah Griffith Lund, Blessed Union

I am in a marriage that includes mental illness. Both my wife and I have standing refills for prescriptions that help balance our minds, and each of us have been in and out of therapy. I could name many moments over the years when each of our afflictions have impacted not only ourselves, but our relationship to each other, whether or not we (mostly me) have known that there was something more at play within us going unaddressed.

Given my own experience, I wonder how often an undiagnosed mental health issue has affected marriages so deeply that the window for healing has lapsed. What if one or both in a relationship could have the awareness, courage, and support (and, at least in the U.S., the availability and funding) to receive help for one's mental wellness? How many such marriages could be brought back toward a journey of mutual health as a result?

These sorts of questions are at the heart of Sarah Lund's Blessed Union: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness and Marriage. Sarah has been a longtime advocate for mental health issues borne from her personal experience. It has been a cornerstone of her ministry as both a local church pastor and as Minister for Disabilities and Mental Health for the United Church of Christ, as well as author of her previous book, Blessed Are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family and Church. Her experience and work has brought her to focusing in this new volume on how mental illness affects marriage specifically.

(As you may be able to deduce from the previous paragraph, she's also a friend and co-worker. Just giving full disclosure.)

The bulk of the book is organized according to the Declaration of Intention part of the marriage liturgy (i.e., the part where the answer is "I do"), and supplemented by verses from 1 Corinthians 13, the most familiar scripture passage read at Christian weddings. Lund reflects on what it means to promise, love, comfort, honor, keep, and be faithful in a marriage where one or both are wrestling with mental illness. 

In addition to these stated themes, Lund introduces the reader to a married couple in each chapter who has navigated (not always successfully) the issues that mental illness has introduced into their relationship. These stories come with an honesty that helps put real names and circumstances to these issues, and that refrains from glossing over how much of a struggle this can be. 

The book also does not take for granted that the reader may already be familiar with terms, diseases, and larger issues of justice that mental health involves. Lund is careful to provide some general guidelines about what she means when she uses the term "mental illness" at the beginning, as well as a chapter on the larger societal reality that serves as a backdrop for how well a couple may be able to access the resources that they need. Whenever a new term is introduced in a particular chapter, Lund pauses to provide a brief explanation of what it is and how it affects one's mind.

Each chapter also provides a few discussion questions and a prayer to help move the reader from becoming more informed to practical application. This is further encouraged by a small space at the back for journaling in response to each chapter. 

All in all, Blessed Union is well-organized, theologically rich, and has a pastoral sensitivity for the reader. It presents an honest assessment of the effect that mental illness may have on a marriage while balancing it with hope and suggestions for how to seek help. A couple seeking such a resource for themselves will find it here.

Blessed Union releases on February 9th.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)