Buttons Guy, Mental Illness and The Church. Part 1.


When a man who lives in the town of Geel in Belgium sees lions jumping out from his wallpaper and running at him, the father of the family he lives with doesn’t try to convince him that they aren’t real; rather he chases them away.

Or when another boarder, constantly and obsessively fiddles with the buttons on his jacket so much that they come off everyday; rather than using fishing wire to attach the buttons making them more difficult to remove, the mother of the family he lives with, sits down each evening and resows the buttons on.

Every. Single. Night.


Now to you and I, this probably seems mad and completely counterproductive. But to the families who have taken in members of their town with mental illness as a part of their family, it is as obvious as seeking psychiatric help might seem to us.

And the really crazy thing is, it works. The residents of Geel are genuinely happy and thriving and living normal every day lives. Doctors do monitor situations but on the whole, people are allowed to live normal everyday lives without any fuss.

What’s the catch?

Ok there is one catch to this story from Belgium. But it’s probably not what you think. One of the things that some families soon discovered was that housing people with mental illnesses had a strange effect on their own families. When families brought strangers into their homes, these people thrived but a lot of the children of these families began to struggle.

It was as if it was easier to accept a stranger’s quirks and flaws than it was to accept those of the people who you were emotionally bonded to through blood. Or put another way, the closer we are to someone the harder it is to unconditionally accept them for who they are. (Tweet This).

This really makes sense when you think about. When someone we know but aren’t necessarily related or emotionally attached to experiences failure or struggles with something difficult in their life, we’re the first to comfort them and tell them it’s going to be ok. That they are not a failure, that they’re simply human.

Yet, when it happens to us, we suddenly become the biggest piece of shit who ever lived.

Amazing Grace (As long as you’re not constantly screwing up of course) 

Now as I started to hear more and more about this strange small town in Belgium where people with mental illnesses are not treated like pariahs and are allowed to live normal lives, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling there had to be something that I could learn about what it means to be a part of a community.

I started thinking about church and Grace and all the different experiences I’ve had growing up, personally and in the people I’ve shared these experiences with and I wondered if I hadn’t really experienced acceptance in the way like Buttons guy had.

When you’re a part of a church there is often a core message grounded in the idea of Grace. The idea that nothing you do or don’t do will ever change God’s love for you. It’s a beautiful message. Then there is the other side, which often comes from other people in the church. Things like, you need to change, that your addiction is a sin and you need to stop it. Or your doubts about your faith are bringing everyone else down and you need to deal with them or at least bury them. Or “you read that guy’s books?! I’d be careful about him.”

Or maybe you’re questioning something that you’ve believed as true your whole life and now you’re learning more about the Bible and you’re thinking maybe there is another way to read this. But then, that disrupts the dominant thinking held for hundreds of years and you’re afraid to bring it up because you’ll be removed from your position in the church and how will you pay for your kids college then? So you think it’s better to just keep it on the down low.

But then it eats away at you every day and you become sick. All because you don’t feel free to be completely yourself.

You don’t feel accepted.

Mental Church

Those of us who have suffered from a mental illness do so because of a deep inability to accept something about ourselves. The church often struggles with it more than most since once you’re “saved” you are meant to be joyful and at peace and have a deep faith “flowing like a river”. But what if you don’t feel that way? What if waking up everyday is a real struggle. And I don’t mean, it’s 5am and I only got four hours sleep struggle. I mean, what if I didn’t get up today, would it really matter to anyone? What if I can’t face going to work because there are people there that rely on me?

Then once you get there you have to preach a message you’re not fully sure you even believe in this morning.

The more and more I considered it the more I realized that the phenomena that was occurring in Belgium is occurring in our churches. That the people in our ‘families’ are often the people that we struggle to accept unconditionally. But people that are new and have really terrible stuff going on in their lives are welcomed. This is obviously a good thing but what happens along the line that makes us change subtly, where we desire change.

Where we almost demand change.

There is obviously just that natural part of us that hates to see someone we love and care for go through something horrible that is preventing them from truly being alive. But then there was something else going on in Geel which could unlock this whole mystery for us. And when we see it, we may just realize that the key to Grace and acceptance was staring right back at us the whole time.

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