World Mental Health Day 2020

Taken from All Star Superman #10 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

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 – there’s a list of numbers at from around the world at this link. Or at least ask a mate to take you out and buy you a drink.

I’ll be honest, because honesty all round is a good starting point when it comes to mental health: I suffer from anxiety. I suffer from stress. I take medication for this, and talk to a counsellor, but there are still days, like yesterday, I binge eat, days on which I can’t focus or concentrate because of thoughts failing to cohere, buzzing like static, like bees without a queen. And yet I have a lovely family, I hold down a decent job, and I try not to take this for granted because this is an illness that takes its toll, and there are those whose suffering is greater than mine will ever be. 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, to mourn with those left behind. No-one wants to talk theology when they’re folding away those clothes for the final time.

That meansd something for the Church. 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. There’s a phrase I once heard, and I wish I could remember who said it because I’ve quoted it a thousand times: “Every worship group should have a break-up song”. In other words, there’s a time to dance but also a time to mourn. And there are some of you out there who need to sing sad songs in church, because someone, probably without realising it, has told you that you lack faith, that you don’t really trust in God, that stress is you being Mary when actually you 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. And 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, and so does God, because no-one who once sweated blood is unfamiliar with stress or fear or anguish.

And so, 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 in your illness, 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.

This year’s theme for World Mental Health Day is greater investment and greater access. We hear that and we think budgets, we think programmes, we think setting up meetings to discuss new ministries. And if that’s where you’re led then go for it – seriously, go for it. But as we continue to live through Coronatide, we’re being prompted to reimagine how our churches do community, and so maybe the investment we need to make is relationships, is extending an open hand, is repentance for past mistakes, is imagining the ways we can create a safer, more healing environment for all those who need it. And I don’t know what that looks like for you or your church, because the Spirit knows a million different dances and is happy to lead.

A Vision for Solarpunk Churches

Stained glass solar panel by designer Marjan van Aubel

Forgive me for not having blogged much recently; it’s been a heavy few months, what with 2020 feeling like the world is cosplaying the Book of Revelation. Between plague and war, fire and floods, the future feels precarious. Billionaires have been watching us fighting over toilet paper and have their luxury doomsday bunkers all ready to go, while climate change is now a lived reality for many communities around the world. How we respond to all this is going to be a reckoning for the Church throughout the world. No pressure.

Of course, if we’re honest, many almost welcome catastrophic events as heralds of the End Times. Why worry about melting ice-caps, goes a certain line of thinking, when God’s going to put everything right when Jesus comes again? There are whole theological currents involved in this thinking – Millenarianism and Dominionism and so on and so forth – but it’s hard to see them as comfort for the future when we’re living in the middle of multiple crises, when we’re all trying to ride out a pandemic.

But what if this isn’t the apocalypse? What if this is the new normal? What’s the Church’s role in a changing world? That’s a question that’s been with us since Peter had a vision of the worst dinner ever, and it’s one we’ve got to answer in a world of COVID and wildfires. And it’s rooted in our vision for the world – not just our own congregation, whether or not we should be meeting without masks or whatever – but our vision for the communities we serve and the generations still to be born.

Because I’m a great big nerd, I think about this and my thoughts end up going down a solarpunk route. Solarpunk is an aesthetic, influenced by cyberpunk and steampunk, but optimistically rooted in what the world would look like if we fully embraced renewable technologies and sustainable living. And, because this is my blog and I can write what I want, I think solarpunk can be married to ecclesiology. Here’s what I mean.

Back in 2015, the designer Marjan van Aubel presented a stained glass window that doubles up as a solar panel, with a charging point installed into the windowsill. The window isn’t at the point where it will power your worship band, but imagine integrating this sort of technology into church design, building on an artistic heritage and using it to make a statement. And I don’t know if this tech is commercially available or financially viable, but that’s not the point of the exercise – the point is to imagine and embrace a future where we design our buildings to serve both our local communities and the Global Village, to appreciate that the Holy Spirit is an artist and an inspiration and will help shape our congregations in unexpected ways if we’re open to it.

That may mean rethinking what ministry looks like in the future. Maybe I’ve been watching too many episodes of The Repair Shop, but think about all those technical and practical skills that are represented in our churches, all the carpenters and electricians and engineers we worship alongside. Think about how repairing a friend’s car or their shower or their lawnmower can help support them through a financial crisis. Think about how the fixer movement helps challenge consumerism and conserve resources in a world of austerity and economic pressure. There are lots of skills sitting in our pews, gifts from God that may remain unused because they don’t fit the template. That’s when we need to get radical – why not get a bunch of churches working together to facilitate a pop-up ‘fixer space’? Carrying a set of tools can be just as much a part of worship as carrying a guitar, because sometimes fixing broken things is a sort of resurrection.

And then think of our church gardens, our churchyards, the scrap of grass next to the carpark. A few years ago, it was noted that these spaces were often havens of biodiversity in urban areas, homes to ancient trees and minibeasts. Maybe that’s something to lean into, using these green spaces to encourage bees and butterflies, maybe even develop community gardens. That gives us something to learn from Ethiopian Christians, who have a long tradition of verdant ‘church forests’, deliberately tended as symbols of the Garden of Eden. In a time of global crisis, we have to learn from our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

And I know all this feels a bit pie-in-the-sky, and I know it takes time and money that we don’t always have. I get that; writing a blog post is way easier than putting any of this into action. But there’s something inside me that insists that this is important, that we have to be like the prophets who envisaged a future in which God healed the land, who told their people to seek the good of their cities because there were going to be living there for a while. What if that’s a calling for our generation – not to be first in line for the Rapture, but to be on the front line of all the crises that face us, to meet the challenge of crazy times by dreaming even crazier dreams.

Because, when it comes down to it, I think that’s where Jesus would be.

Iconoclasm

jpgThe line between hero and villain is often so thin that it’s transparent, sin and virtue written on either side of a piece of glass, a double exposure of virtue and atrocity. History is complicated, messy, and should come with a health warning: handle with care, lest the contents burn you, lest they carpet-bomb the idyllic images we’ve constructed of our past.

I woke this morning to tabloid outrage: protesters have, apparently, defaced the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. ‘CHURCHILL WAS A RACIST’ the epithet now reads, a reference towards his attitude towards Indians. Meanwhile, in Bristol, a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was torn down, protesters kneeling on its neck in reference to George Floyd before throwing it into the harbour. In Richmond, capital of the state of Virginia, a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee is to be put in storage, and while actions such as this often generate spittle-flecked outrage, it feels like something else is going on. Some claim that this is vandalism or cultural erasure, but what if it’s something deeper? What if it’s iconoclasm?

Let’s not kid ourselves; we live in a secular society, and because of this we have secular icons. The reason the tabloids are so angry about the vandalism of Churchill is partly because of the mythic status of the Second World War in British culture, part of the whole ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ thing. To draw attention to Churchill’s failings is, in some way, to expose the failings of Britain at the same time, and alongside the political and social implications of this, there’s also a spiritual element. After all, we’re in a time of change, when plague, violence and greed are shaking our foundations. It’s been said that the times feel apocalyptic and that’s true, not because zombie hoards stalk the streets but because much that was hidden is now being revealed. And because that trashes some of our most sacred icons, the pain it brings may seem brutal. Brutal, but ultimately necessary, because all this forces us to ask questions, to see things anew, to change course.

A preacher I know once did a sermon on a famous biblical villain – King David. Because the man who wrote the 23rd Psalm and killed a giant with a slingshot also became a murder, a rapist who didn’t deliver justice when his daughter was herself raped. The biblical writers could have left these latter stories well alone, stuck with the giant-slaying and the action movie bad-assery. But no; there are the failings of our heroes in black and white. It’s an invitation to live in the tension, to accept that history is messy, difficult, problematic. To not get too comfortable in our constructed histories but to be moved to change, to embrace grace, to recognise that sometimes the truth gets spray-painted on the side of a statue.

But, in the words of Homer Simpson’s review of the Bible, “Everyone’s a sinner! Except that guy.” I have to have faith that there’s one person who doesn’t fall short of the glory, who I can trust, who can provide a way forward in these times. The world is shaking, but there’s still hope. There can still be justice. We can still change.

And Jesus once vandalised a Temple.

Black Lives Matter (And They Always Did)

I hesitated to even start writing this post. After all, I’m a white guy in England – what do I have to add to the debate, the conversation, the placards? A large part of me thinks that I should just close my laptop, to shut up and listen to the voices that need to be heard. There’s a huge list of names, people of colour killed by American police, but I don’t know how to speak into that, don’t know how to heal the effects of this trauma on young black men and their families. It feels like another world at times; that’s probably part of the problem.

But in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King spared his greatest criticism not for the ardent segregationists, but for the white ‘allies’ who thought that his protests were foolish and needlessly provocative and who hoped that the whole Civil Rights thing would quietly work itself out. It didn’t then, and it won’t now. Peaceful actions are ignored, riots are condemned, the wheel keeps turning.

We celebrated Pentecost last week, the time when the Church was brought together by the fire and the breath of the Holy Spirit, when people from all around the known world heard God speaking in their own language. And yet we celebrated that when American cities burned in the outrage of communities who have been ignored for too long, burned in the counter-rage of those who wanted to make protesters into demons. A week later, two thousand years later and we’re still confronted with the duty as well as the gift of Pentecost; this feels like a time of repentance and confrontational justice and, I hope, a time of deep and genuine healing. It’ll take time but there have already been too many wasted and unjust years.

Jesus traveled through Samaria, despite local racial tensions, because Samaritan lives mattered; the early church had to confront its prejudices towards parts of their community because the lives of Greek widows mattered; Philip baptised the Ethiopian eunuch, despite him being a social outsider, because Black lives matter, and they always have. But throughout our history, we’ve failed to remember that simple truth, that lesson in basic humanity.

So Pope Nicholas V baptised the Doctrine of Discovery so that European Christian empires could take control of any lands they found, no matter who was already living there. That led to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the American Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan. It led to overflowing coffers for cities like Liverpool and Bristol; it led to ‘Negro collars’ and chains and cuffs being forged in the area in which I grew up, it led to newspaper readers in the city I now live cancelling their subscriptions because the editor called attention to the horrors of slavery. It led to the theologian James Cone drawing comparisons between the Crucifixion and the lynchings that scarred the American south. And, in many ways, it led to more modern words that speak to toxic ideologies and theologies that move virus-like through our society’s DNA: Grenfell, Windrush, Hostile Environment.

Words, of course, have layers of meaning. It’s easy to say, like so many do, that “All lives matter”. It’s a phrase that, on its surface, sounds true. But we live in a world where some lives seem to matter more than others. Some lives are more likely to end up in prison. Some lives are more likely to be animalised by Google’s algorithms. Some lives are less likely to have clean water to drink. Some lives are more likely to be ended by COVID-19. There’s a pattern here that suggests that, actually, all lives don’t matter. And that’s a sin.

Ad so I come back to Pentecost, the birth of the Church, a Church that is made up of people of all races, all nationalities, all ethnicities, a Church that was born in an explosion of different languages. We are one Body, this Church, and if we look at that demographically, that Body is one of colour; if we look like our Saviour, then that Body is that of a brown Middle-Easterner.

Yes, I’m being deliberately provocative here, but it feels like this is a time not only for repentance but a greater appreciation of the Church’s diversity. Because we are brothers and sisters, and some of those brothers and sisters are scared right now, they’re angry and frustrated and traumatised and because we’re bound together by bread and wine, by Blood and Spirit, we can’t remain on the sidelines. We can’t fix this, not as individuals, but we can learn, we can support, we can stand in the gap, we can check our hearts. We can sing. We can amplify. We can pray.

Because Black Lives Matter. And it’s a sin to live as though they don’t.

Pandemic Pentecost

mark wiggin pentecost

Art by Mark Wiggin

Happy birthday, Church! It’s been a bumpy couple of millennia (could have done without that whole Constantine business, frankly), but here we are. It’s not the sort of Pentecost we’re used to – lockdowns and social distancing and Zoom galore – but maybe, like Easter, this gives Pentecost 2020 its own special authenticity. After all, two thousand years ago the disciples were hiding away, trying to figure out what to do next, waiting for God to make clear the way forward. And then the Spirit blows up their circumstances, wind and fire and a explosion of expression as suddenly the disciples are speaking languages they’ve never spoken before.

That last one is important. The Holy Spirit is a communicator, after all, and this feels like one of those moments in which the Church is learning to communicate all over again. It’s easy to get all Zoomed out, but look at the way congregations have been embracing the challenge of going online. And for many people who have needed to be part of an online fellowship due to the inaccessibility of many church buildings, this is an affirmation and a chance to show what the Spirit has already been doing.

Because behind all these Youtube videos and Instalives is code – language, if you will. And while Peter and the others couldn’t have even imagined Skype and Facebook as they spilled out onto the streets of Jerusalem all those years ago, the Holy Spirit could. Maybe this is its own little heresy, and if so forgive me, but I can easily imagine the Spirit biding his time to speak in a language of ones and zeroes, to send his fire through the wires and the broadband signals, to become the (Holy) Ghost in the Machine. This isn’t just theological musing – look at how many people have, in the midst of a lockdown, been able to explore issues of faith for the first time because so many churches have embraced technology? How many creative people – not just musicians and speakers, but coders and video editors – have been able to get involved in church services for the first time? All these new technologies, new expressions of art, suddenly they’re playing their part in the Church because the Spirit can bring together new languages and new creatives and make them shine.

Every year we hear the reading from Acts 2, and some poor soul has to pronounce the list of ancient nations correctly. But I think there’s a bigger idea within all this than we sometimes appreciate. Pentecost is a reversal of the Tower of Babel, language being used for unity rather than division, and in a world where so much much divides and isolates us, we need a big-brush approach to language. And so that’s a prayer for us – which languages do we need the Spirit to help us use? Sign language? Makaton? Braille? Many communities have been isolated from the Church because we don’t use their language, we can’t communicate with them effectively. May God forgive us for this; may God give us the wisdom and humility to learn from those communities that have already been led by the Spirit to embrace technology because it was the only way for them to form congregations.

The Spirit is a healer as well, and so may we use these strange and scary times to seek that healing – in terms of COVID-19, yes, but also in terms of attitudes and prejudices. I turn on my TV and America is in flames; I open my email and find that our local Chinese church is facing increased xenophobia as a result of the pandemic. Too many people thrive on Babel’s curse, and that’s something we have to confront. And then there’s the silence – of mental health, of domestic violence, of suicide, of injustice. Communication can help defeat those as well, as long as there’s power behind it and not just words.

The Spirit is big, really big. We can list his attributes – Healer, Communicator, Artist – but the whole is bigger than the sum of his parts. He can heal through art, heal through communication. He can make his people change and grow and signpost Jesus. He can make old things new again, and he can bring hope to the silence, even in lockdown.

Happy birthday, Church.