Giving a Damn (a post for #WorldMentalHealthDay)

(I’ve posted this before, but I think it holds true, and anyway, it acts as a companion piece to my earlier post. And besides, it’s an opportunity to use the best page from Morrison and Quietly’s All Star Superman.)

Sometimes, all it takes is for someone to give a damn.

Sometimes all it takes is for someone to say “How are you?” and then to follow that up with “Okay, now tell me the truth.”

Sometimes all it takes is for someone to put up a red flag. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to pick up the phone.

Today is World Mental Health Day. And look, if you’ve stumbled here and you feel like you need to want to hurt yourself or stop the pain forever, then please, talk to someone, call someone, please just stop for a moment and pick up a phone. The number for the Samaritans, in the UK at least, is 116 123; in the US you can call 800-273-8255. Or ask your mate to take you out and buy you a drink.

I don’t know what else to say. I’m fortunate I guess, I’ve never been in quite that dark a place. But there have been times when I’ve been horribly low, when I didn’t know where to turn, when I just wanted to curl up and sleep. And I hid it pretty well. Maybe I dodged a bullet.

Others aren’t so lucky. And that means we’ve got to look after each other.

That goes for all of us, of course, but this is a Christian blog and so I got thinking about this through the lens of the Church. Because look, I know our churches are busy. We’ve got a lot on and a million jobs to do and about three elderly volunteers to do them with. Ministers have diaries that would turn my hair white at the thought of all the meetings and councils and committees that need to be endured. Sometimes you can’t stop the tail wagging the dog.

But there are times when we’ve got to look at that, times when we have to challenge the corporate model of doing church, with its pastor/manager making sure everyone’s on message and doing their jobs and go back to being a community. And we’ve got to look at the language and attitudes we promote, because sometimes that’s inadvertently driving people deeper into the dark.

So if that means being radical and dropping an event and thirteen church council meetings to chat with someone down the pub then so be it. If that means deciding to not budget for a new sound system so we can spend that money on mental health awareness training for our pastoral visitors then we should do so. If we need to drop a meeting or two so that people can also be taught to care for themselves better then go for it.

Worship is important, vital even. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think God’s interested in our songs if they’re distracting us from noticing the person sitting at the back who can barely get the words out because they’re hurting so much. Our churches need to be spaces of raw honesty rather than places where we pretend everything’s okay because of some impossible obligation.

And then there are those who fall through the cracks, those who take their own lives despite everything. And that leads to guilt and grief, shock and shame, and we have to be able to look after each other then as well. Often those are the times we just need to shut up and weep with those who weep. No-one wants to talk theology when they’re folding away those clothes for the final time.

We’re called to love each other. That’s not just a platitude. And you can preach and you can sing and you can fix the roof and you can do the flowers. But sometimes the most sacred ministry you – and all the rest of us – can do is to simply and steadfastly give a damn.

Mental Illness and Christianity (a post for #WorldMentalHealthDay

7cdb01593fb27200f88d10d99664a6f11I didn’t want to write this post. I didn’t want to admit, in public, that I struggle with, and suffer from, anxiety, stress and depression. Mental health remains fairly taboo; no-one really wants to ralk about it, and the subject is surrounded by so much misinformation and shaming that it’s easier to ignore it, to lock it safely away behind closed doors.

But that way lies guilt, isolation, despair. The reluctance and inability to have an open, compassionate conversation about mental health, particularly in the church, is making the problem worse. Our silence strengthens the suffering.

So, in the quiet and the gloom of an autumn afternoon, while I feel brave enough to write this in the first place, here are some thoughts on Christianity and mental health…

Mental illness is an illness

Too often, mental health issues are treated as a failing, a weakness, a lack of faith, and in doing so words are inadvertently weaponised, leaving the people hearing them feeling even more crushed and exhausted than before.

But if you have an infection, you get antibiotics, and if you’re diagnosed with cancer, you get chemotherapy. You pray about it, you ask trusted friends to pray about it. And so that should give us permission to do the same when suffering from depression, or anxiety, or stress. You’re allowed to go on medication. You’re allowed to seek counselling, you’re allowed to seek prayer. Because mental illness is illness, and you do what you’ve gotta do to manage it. And no-one has the right to judge or shame you for that, because it’s your mind, your body, your life, your relationships you need to look after.

And for the wider Christian community that has pastoral implications. While churches are great at mobilising when someone’s diagnosed with a ‘physical’ illness, we need to become just as effective at  giving lifts to counselling sessions and offering to pick up prescriptions for antidepressants. The church is family, and families support each other, even when that involves breaking taboos and speaking into silence.

Grace and love abound

You may have been told you lack faith. You may have been told that your anxiety is a lack of trust in God, you may have been told that stress is you being Mary when you really should be Martha.

But this trivialise the problem, doesn’t it? It adds an extra layer of shame and guilt, and most of the time people don’t realise it’s happening. You sit quietly in a sermon as the words fly towards you like bullets.

Waking up feeling scared every day, no matter what’s actually happening, isn’t just ‘worry’. Having a negative physical reaction, shallow breathing and panicked thoughts when you see an email alert isn’t just ‘being a bit overworked’. Spontaneous bursts of anger or paranoia or despair aren’t healthy. You know that.

But in the middle of this, God doesn’t leave us. In the middle of this we are not condemned or damned. Because none of this is about the power of your faith or your acceptance of dogma. It’s about you being a child of God, ir’s about you being covered by grace, it’s about you being loved. And it’s about God being with you, even when you feel abandoned, even when you feel lost, even when you’re trapped in a fog that feels solid as stone. And if there are times you can’t believe that, try to let others believe it for you.

I’m a Methodist local preacher, and after one service someone thanked me for talking about grace,  because they didn’t hear it enough. And that shocked me, because grace is at the centre of all we have and we need to communicate that with every breath. Maybe we need to get better at pointing our stories of grace in the right direction.

Gethsemane is important

We sometimes focus so much on Christ’s divinity that we imagine him walking through the world untouched by everything until he got to the Cross.  But sidelining his humanity does violence to the Incarnation, and that has an impact on how Christ’s humanity impacts on our own.

That’s why Gethsemane is important. After all, no-one who sweats blood is unfamiliar with moments of stress and anxiety. There’s a moment of solidarity here, of recognition, of familiarity. Christianity is centred on God becoming human, and that means having experience of some horrific experiences, including crushing anguish. This should affect how we talk about things like anxiety, should create a space in which it’s safe to have conversations about stress. After all, these concepts aren’t alien to Christ himself, they shouldn’t be alien to our churches.

There are plenty of people out there struggling with mental illness. This needs to be acknowledged as a day to day reality, and we need to create an environment in which it’s safe to talk about this. And this doesn’t need to be scary; sometimes it’s simply about recognising that the problem is there; sometimes it’s about simply giving a damn. And in doing so, find a way out of the dark; find a light to walk towards.

Ability Sunday

Once upon a time, we looked into the sky and the depths of the stars; we saw the storm clouds and the lightning and we put our faith in seedtime and harvest. We did all these things and behind them all we felt something, someone, at work. We heard the whisper of someone speaking, someone present within us but also beyond us.

We carried this knowledge with us as wandering turned into farms turned into cities. Temples appeared in deserts and high streets, then churches and seminaries. Stories turned into texts, the texts escaped into the wild and we listened and read and responded with countless efforts to fathom the majesty and mystery of God.

All of this hides a secret: all the theology and all the sermons put together can’t fully unlock that mystery, a thousand textbooks barely a syllable. And although this quest is noble and important, if the ultimate aim is understanding then it’s nothing more than tilting at windmills.

My eldest son is autistic with associated learning difficulties. He’ll never be a theologian, he’ll never attend a Bible college. That’s not his calling, but he takes the bread and wine alongside everyone else, understanding on a gut level the love and grace of God. If there’s a priesthood of all believers then he’s a priest.

He’s a priest when he puts the chairs away. He’s a priest when he mows the church’s lawns. He’s a priest when he puts together flatpack furniture for anyone who’ll let him. He’s a priest when people witness his servant heart.

God is huge, ineffable, and all our learning is a drop in a divine ocean. But that’s its own kind of grace, because it means that God makes himself known to anyone who’ll listen. The Spirit moves where the Spirit wants, and maybe he’s particularly interested in moving towards those who, in our arrogance, are written off, undervalued, patronised, infantilised. The Spirit is there, and if we don’t recognise that, well, who’s at fault?

On this Ability Sunday, my wife signed to my son “Jesus loves you”. On this Ability Sunday, my son responded with a thumbs up. And in that thumbs up there’s a wave of understanding, there’s ability and grace.

The Spirit moves where the Spirit wants.

Never dare to be shocked at who’s listening.

World Refugee Day

World-Refugee-Day-1It starts with the language; words like ‘infest’ and ‘hordes’ and ‘armies’, words that weave images of war and plague. The language seeps into our hearts and minds, like some toxic incantation that transforms human beings fleeing for their lives, men, women and children, into an invasion force come to rape and pillage. “They’re here to take our women, they’re here to take our jobs” yell the tabloids; after all, it gets votes and ad-clicks, no matter how distorted or untrue the screaming gets. This is the era of Fake News after all, and people profit from it. Never bet against the darker angels of our nature; the race starts with the language and ends with kids in cages, or worse.  Memesmiths are happy to shape reality, to turn London into the mythical Londonistan, to augment reality with toxic hallucinations, to grow fat on clicks and likes.

If you fight monsters, take care lest ye become a monster. That’s doubly true if the monsters you’re fighting don’t exist.

And yet I’ve met asylum seekers and refugees. I don’t work on a border or in a camp; I make no claims to nobility. That’s the point – I’ve met asylum seekers at work, people who just want to get an education, to learn English or Business or Engineering. They have families and aspirations, they have hopes and a sense of humour. They’re ordinary, albeit forged in extraordinary circumstances that I wouldn’t want to face. And that’s why we need to stand with refugees, because we’re all human and we need to look after each other. Don’t sell your soul in return for outrage. Cut through the rhetoric and the rants, shout down the prejudice and profiteering, because we’re one and it’s a sin to sacrifice our brothers and sisters to the idolatry of lines on a map.

We live in dangerous times, shadows that once crept around corners now coalescing into a cold eclipse. Injustice and hatred have their sway, and despite the cries of “This isn’t who we are!”, the dirty secret of history is that that atrocities are committed by those who would have once thought themselves incapable of it. And so we need to stand together, stand together and be caring, be compassionate, be kind. Bad times start with language, but so do good, so speak words of hope, of humour, of peace and mercy and grace and welcome. Use words to cast visions, not curses; speak kindly of your neighbour, speak well of those fleeing the armies that arrived or the rains that didn’t. All the Never Agains started with people like us, for good or ill, and so we face the eternal choice. Be good. Be humane. Be kind.

Spreadsheets are still spiritual: A post for Grenfell Tower

(I wrote this post following the horrific fire at Grenfell. Two years later and it’s emerged that over 200 tower blocks across England still have unsafe cladding, with work still to start on its removal.)

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower is still raw, a cacophony of anger and grief and heroism and apathy played out in the shadow of a highrise, a beacon for a country struggling with inequality and terrorist outrages and an inconclusive election, drawing the focus to the very real testimonies of those who have lost everything: first their safety, then their voice, then homes, possessions, loved ones.

Stories of those loved ones are emerging: a Syrian man, Mohammed, who fled the civil war and who was studying civil engineering; an artist, Khalifa, whose work is currently on display in Venice; Isaac, a five year old boy. Firefighters wrote their names on their helmets as they walked into the fire; communities pulled together to provide shelter, supplies, support. All this took place in the face of a murderous injustice; while full details haven’t yet emerged, it seems that Grenfell Tower wasn’t safe, built with unsafe materials and no sprinklers and no answers. This tragedy shouldn’t have happened.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” St. Paul once wrote, and profit margins and unit costs often show us where our hearts lie. The cost of a sprinkler system, or £2 extra per metre of cladding becomes a stake, a gamble that a fire won’t break out, with odds that apparently made it worth playing. I doubt anyone wanted these deaths to happen, but there’s a risk register somewhere that’s now exposed as a moral, even a spiritual document.

Millenia ago, an ancient law was handed down on top of a mountain. And among the commandments and liturgies and rituals, there’s a simple piece of construction advice – if you build a house, make sure the roof’s safe so that no-one falls, no-one dies. Elsewhere, there’s provision for priests to get involved in an environmental health situation. And yes, that’s a Bronze Age culture and I don’t think health and safety should be ecclesiastical, but justice persists, and the safety of the places we live and work is a justice issue. Lives are at stake, lives have been lost, and spreadsheets sometimes triumph over humanity.

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But spreadsheets are spiritual. Building regulations are spiritual. Our homes should be safe and Grenfell shouldn’t have burned. We pray and mourn with the survivors, we honour the heroes. But let’s always remember that how we build and what we spend are moral decisions; humanity should triumph over portfolios.