Today, Brenna speaks to us about communing with God in the midst of mental illness, examining the life of David and what skulls mean to her. Thank you for your vulnerability, Brenna!
Tell us a bit about how you grew up and your childhood: I grew up as the middle child of three with parents who were pastors, for the first few years of my life. My dad is a really gifted communicator, so he was offered a lot of pastoral positions in small amount of time, but after moving around a lot my family landed in Vancouver, Washington. My dad left ministry and started an office job while my mom founded a youth theater program surrounding Christian values all while homeschooling the three of us, at the same time.
While my siblings were heavily invested in theater, I still kept one foot in sports and tried to be involved in as many different activities as possible. Between ages nine and ten my grandma passed away from cancer, my parents got separated, and I ended up being molested by someone I hardly knew. All this happening in such a short amount of time felt like it brought my childhood to a screeching halt. The years after that were filled with a lot of struggle to trust people around me and process my emotions. By the end of middle school, I was deeply depressed and suicidal. Throughout my entire childhood though, both my parents continued to show me by example that Jesus overcomes even the heaviest and most hopeless situations. My childhood feels complicated, but at the same time it still feels like I was given such a gift to have two parents who love God and who love their kids well. My parents separation did not last too long and seeing them trust in the healing work that Christ offers us has greatly impacted my faith.
Inspiring biblical passage of the moment: I have been thinking a lot on Psalm 51 recently. It is interesting because it was written by David after abusing Bathsheba and murdering her husband to cover it all up. I have struggled to look at David and know God called him a man after His own heart. David created so much pain and devastation in the lives of others through his own sin, so why would God favor him? But then again, why would God favor any of us if we are just as capable and willing to do the same?
The thing about David (in this Psalm) is he was able to accept correction and seek repentance. Nathan comes to him and calls him out on his atrocity. David, being a king, could have sent Nathan away or worse, but he didn’t. Instead, David listened and allowed conviction to rule over his heart instead of pride or evil. From this, I learn two things from two men. Nathan knew David had a relationship with God and knew of his sin; he gently called him to be aware of this. David was made aware of his sin and allowed it to bring him back to God, the only source that can blot out our transgressions. We can gently call our friends back to Christ and we should. But even more so, we should always seek correction that leads to redemption. If David can be redeemed, so can we… and so can the “David” in your life be redeemed also.
“We should always seek correction that leads to redemption.”
Spiritual growth focus at the moment: I struggle with being still. I always want to plan the next thing or have something to work on. Even when I have slow moments in the day, I often fill that with social media or TV, but I have been feeling the urge to learn to sit more in that and actually commune with God in those moments. Maybe that sounds simple, but it is something I desperately want to be okay with. I want to look forward to those silent moments in the day when my brain snaps out of drudge of all that is going on and remembers “Oh, God is waiting for you, so… just talk or sit and listen to Him”. I don’t want to rely on things that don’t mean much to keep me filled. I want to learn to love stillness, and that’s what I am working on.
“I don’t want to rely on things that don’t mean much to keep me filled.”
Profession: I am Christian speaker/teacher. My passion is for lukewarm Christians, maybe those who have grown up believing in God because that is what their parents believed in or those who know who God is but have yet to have an actual relationship with Him yet. I felt so confused growing up seeing empty or fake relationships with God that it all just felt like a lot of BS. But at 18, my life was radically changed by coming to know the real God. I realized then so many people’s lives could be made new if they realized that God is who the Bible says He is, but it requires honesty. So, I spend most of my time speaking to high schoolers and young adults about the real God and how He changes things for us. I also produce a podcast called “Can I Say That?” that focuses on asking hard questions the church usually avoids talking about. So many people want to know God but wrestle with questions and situations and topics that have been deemed taboo or untouchable within the church. The call God has placed on my life is to walk into those spaces, speak honestly and introduce Truth.
“I felt so confused growing up seeing empty or fake relationships with God that it all just felt like a lot of BS. But at 18, my life was radically changed by coming to know the real God. I realized then so many people’s lives could be made new if they realized that God is who the Bible says He is, but it requires honesty.”
If you wrote a memoir, what would the title be? Maybe something about skulls… I really love skeletons and skulls and have one tattooed on me. Half of my wardrobe has skulls on it and that was primarily the thing I often wore to church on Sundays for a few years. I grew up looking at motorcycles all the time with my dad since I was two, so I think between that culture, loving Halloween and all the scripture about going from death to life and Christ raising dry bones, it has just become a great love of mine.
When did you first encounter God and how did you encounter Him? I think my first encounter with God that I was actually aware of was when I was a sophomore in high school. I had been going to youth group regularly but wasn’t really bought into those idea of a God who was actually present. I had been struggling deeply with mental illness, and just wanted to die. I hated worship because it just made me feel so out of place and uncomfortable, but every week I prayed a similar prayer that just sent something like “if you’re real can you just show up for me…”. I think I prayed that for almost two years until one night right after praying that a girl got up and walked all the way across the sanctuary to me. We had never talked or met, but she put her hand on my shoulder and just said “I think God just told me I need to pray for you…”. Our church wasn’t really even close to being charismatic so the whole experience seemed so strange but at the same time that’s when this small piece of hope was placed in me. I just thought “okay, hi… maybe You do hear me and maybe You want to be near to me”. I couldn’t shake that.
How has your relationship with Him changed you? It [has] kept me alive and made me want to live. After wrestling with depression all of my teen years, I was diagnosed as bipolar at age 22 after a 5 month long manic episode that landed me in the hospital on suicide watch. I was working as a youth pastor, I had just gotten married and gone back to school for theology, and all I wanted was for my pain to cease. It was obvious after the first two or three months that wouldn’t happen soon.
The doctors didn’t really have any immediate answers or relief for me, my faith was still in a God who was good, but I didn’t feel sustained, and I didn’t feel like it was worth fighting anymore. I remember my first night in the psych ward being in a locked room, absolutely alone for what felt like forever. I couldn’t see or call my husband and the nurses were switching shifts, so I was just… utterly alone. The whole 5 months leading up to that I had been praying for God to heal me, but He didn’t. So now what? If I wanted to die, it would be nearly impossible to do in a psych ward, so I laid on my bed and prayed “God.. I just need you now. Not healing…not someone else… not distraction. I think You are all I have left, so would you just be with me?” and peace set in, and I slept for the first time in 5 months for more than 2 hours.
Then, I realized that this whole time I had been begging for healing and ignoring the fact that God just wanted to be with me in that place. Like when Jesus wept (John 11) for his friend who he knew he was going to raise from the dead… the sisters wanted healing but Jesus first wanted to commune. I don’t know if I will ever be healed of mental illness during my time on earth, but now I have a hope and an understanding that we have a God who sees us and wants to be with us. I am thankful for what I have gone through so far in life because it has brought me to place of realizing that whether or not God heals us, whether or not He blesses us in certain ways, any situation we find ourselves in is another opportunity to grow more dependent on Him through that no matter the outcome.
“Then, I realized that this whole time I had been begging for healing and ignoring the fact that God just wanted to be with me in that place.”
What has helped you grow spiritually in this season? Therapy. Praying with my husband. Having a toddler. Coronavirus (no really..).
Just read/currently reading (and what has it taught you?): For school, I have been reading American Evangelicals: A Contemporary History of a Religious Mainstream Religion. It has been a really interesting and challenging read as an evangelical because it really shines some light on things that we do not based on scripture but as a reaction to “secular culture”. I also just finished The Road Back to You, a book that outlines the enneagram types with a Christian perspective. It does a wonderful job of explaining the benefits to engaging with the enneagram, and how it came help you become a more healthy individual and follower of God.
Top three essentials: Black Coffee. Burt’s Bees peppermint Chapstick. Screamo music.
How did God speak to you recently? Through encouragement from a friend who called on the phone. We shared just a few words, but she reminded me that the opportunities I have been given are not random but from God. So simple but so true and important to remember.
Top three practical tips for staying spiritually strong:
Pray out loud, every day. Devote time to read and study the Bible. Find a mentor who loves Jesus and is old–er than you.
Favorite person in scripture? The woman of Thebez – holy cow. What a woman and what a story.
What do you want people to learn about God when they look at you? That He sustains the hopeless and is close the broken hearted. He doesn’t hate your doubt or your questions. I hope when people look at me they see that God is with us in all those moments.
“He doesn’t hate your doubt or your questions.”
How do you engage with your community? Right now, it looks a little different because we are fairly new to our church. I leave Sundays open to grab coffee with whoever asks, and in this season, we’ve made it our policy that we get to church at least 3 out of 4 weekends a month. In the past, we have been involved in a community group, and hopefully that will happen in the near future, as well. I work seasonally with a youth theater group that I absolutely love and spend lots of time with that community, as well.
Favorite holiday? Halloween, there are no expectations for big parties or family events, and you can cover your face and talk to no one.
A goal you have? To never own a credit card. We have been fortunate to remain debt free our entire relationship, thus far, even while going to school, it [has] been a good challenge.
Thing you want to raise awareness about: If you read the Bible in the right historical and cultural context, then you might find it to be pro-women in pastoral and teaching positions when it comes to the church.
What does your morning routine consist of? My mornings are very laid back and slow. I usually wake up to my toddler talking to himself. We eat breakfast together, and then play in his room for an hour or two. I check my emails and online school forum, we have a snack, and then play some more before nap time, and by then, it’s the afternoon.
What is on your nightstand? Burt’s Bees, phone charger, white noise machine, a second pair of glasses, Peppa Pig Band-Aids, a book, a note from and friend, and usually, La Croix.
Define Christianity in a sentence: Communion and discipleship with the Triune God who calls and knows you by name.
For more Brenna:
Instagram and Twitter: @bunonmyhead
Podcast on Apple, Spotify, Pocketcasts: Can I Say That?
Podcast Instagram: @CanISayThatShow
For speaking inquiries, she can be reached by email: Bjolarson@gmail.com
Until next time, keep witnessing!