Christianity and Mental Illness

I 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 dark of a winter morning, 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.

Christianity and Mental Illness (posted in error)

I didn’t  want to write this post. I didn’T want to admit, in public, that I struggle with, and sif fer from, anxiety, stress and depression .

2016: Blessed are those who mourn (Matthew 5:3-12)

The year is almost over and not a moment too soon. It’s been a strange twelve months, marked by political upheaval and a seemingly neverending succession of celebrity deaths. If there’s a season for everything under Heaven, then 2016 has been a time to mourn.

It feels strange, mourning those we’ve never met, but the loss of beloved cultural figures like David Bowie and Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher has had a genuine impact. After all, our society is formed by the stories we tell, the songs we sing, and losing those who told those stories leaves us impoverished. It’s fair to grieve, necessary even; we grieve and mourn, and maybe we’ll even be inspired to pick up a pen, or a guitar, or a script. Because while the Holy Spirit is a Comforter, he’s also an Inspiration and an Encourager, and if he can give Bezalel the vision to create beauty in the desert, maybe he’ll give us ears to hear new music, eyes to see new art, a Pentecost heart to speak new words. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted, and sometimes through being comforted, through our tears, new possibilities are born.

There are those who’d say we shouldn’t mourn actors and pop singers while thousands die in Syria, in the Mediterranean, in countless disasters and atrocities around the world. But it’s not an either/or thing; may we see the destruction sown around the world and be moved to cry out for justice and hope. The Children of God are peacemakers, or shold be, and this last year has been a reminder that we should lean into that inheritance, that we shouldn’t accept the world as it is, but instead work to build bridges, to break down walls, to beat swords into ploughshares. And where we’re suffering from apathy and compassion fatigue, may we be given an appetite for justice, may we hunger and thirst for righteousness and cry out to God to be filled.

But we don’t just mourn those we’ve lost. We mourn the upswing in and prejudice, we mourn the trolling, we mourn the hate speech. We mourn what we may become, we mourn the darkness we may be stumbling towards. We have to decide how we respond to this – with complicity, with malice, or with a desire for justice tempered with mercy and grace. This is our choice going forward.

2016 is about to recede into history; we stand at that liminal time of year at which a pregnant future swirls before us, ripe with opportunities. And we all walk towards it; no-one can stay behind, but in the midst of it may we glimpse Christ beckoning us forward, calling us to be compassionate, calling us to be creative, calling us to stand. 2017 opens its arms to receive us, to welcome or to crush we don’t yet know. Whichever it is, may a light still shine in the dark; may a better Kingdom come.

A Weeping in Ramah (Matthew 2:16-18)

cranach_massacre_of_the_innocents_detail“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

Today is the Feast of Holy Innocents, or Childermas Day. We commemorate the Slaughter of the Innocents, the New Testament’s signature atrocity carried out when Herod the Great sought to eliminate a threat to his throne by engineering the murder of Bethlehem’s baby boys. Matthew’s gospel links this with a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah; it’s a familiar reading simply because of its connection to a familiar story. But what’s Matthew getting at here?

The key is the reference to Rachel. The wife of the patriarch Jacob, she died in childbirth in the region between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, with the region eventually becoming known as Ramah. Later in Israel’s history, Ramah became one of the places from which the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon – that’s the context of the original passage from Jeremiah, in which Rachel is the personification of the land weeping over her children being exiled, not killed. Matthew appropriates Jeremiah’s words to express the horror of Herod’s actions.

That’s all very interesting, but it’s not really the point, is it? The truth is, the Slaughter of the Innocents isn’t an isolated incident, an act of archetypal horror that exists within the pages of the gospel as an example of pure evil. No, we see the innocent slaughtered on a regular occurrence.

When I was 15, I visited Israel on a school trip. We went to the Yad Veshem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. In it was a hall filled with photos of children, all of whom had been gassed or shot or starved by the Nazis. You can’t walk through that room without hearing the weeping of Rachel. It echoes down the years: Dunblane, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Rwanda, Aleppo, child refugees. The Slaughter of the Innocents is a totemic example of the horrors we unleash upon children, not a one-off atrocity; Jesus was born in the midst of a world of destruction and death, was forced into hiding because of it.

So today we remember all the sins against the world’s children; maybe we need to pledge to work more actively against that. Maybe we need to reconsider how we vote, or how we spend money. Maybe we need to consider where we go to church, or if we’re willing to financially support denominations that aren’t proactively acting against child abuse. Maybe this Christmastide we need to awaken to the reality of the Slaughter of the Innocents and commit to responding with urgency whenever it threatens to recur in our own day and age.


St. Stephen’s Day

In an earlier post I said I’d struggled with Christmas this year,  that all the busyness and stress and associated chaos of 2016 had pushed out the reality of the Incarnation. But while that post was an honest attempt to grapple with faith and feelings, I have to confess its self-indulgence. After all, I still freely celebrated Christmas yesterday; I went to the morning service, the family gathered, we ate turkey, kids unwrapped a small mountain of presents.
No-one was arrested. No-one firebombed the church.

As part of the capital-C church, I’m theologically part of a family of believers that encompasses the world. Christians facing presection under IS, or in North Korea, are my brothers and sisters in faith as well as shared humanity. And yet I don’t live like that; I get introverted and insular and neglect the bonds of blood that unite me to the persecuted church. Maybe that’s something to remember on the Feast of St. Stephen, the day on which we commemorate the first Christian martyr.

Many Christians out there face arrest, face violence, face ostracism and shunning. Many find themselves unable to get jobs, or disowned by their families. Many see their churches burned; this happens even in a staunchly Christian environment like the US. Many claiming refuge for their faith find themselves having to articulate complex doctrine or dogma in a second or third language, and yet true faith isn’t a measure of someone’s academic theology, it’s reflected in their lives and their hearts. I’m sure many people turned away for not being a ‘true’ Christian have faith that would put me to shame, even if they’d struggle to articulate a theology of the Trinity on the fly.

How we respond to this affects everything – how we pray, how we worship, how we talk about God. The causes we support, the politics we espouse, how we respond to issues like the selling of arms and the welcome we give to refugees. It affects the rhetoric we legitimise, the actions we’re willing to overlook. If we truly believe we’re the sons and daughters of God, we need to make that a reality. We ignore our family at our peril.
There’s another side to this though; sometimes, in the comfortable West, it’s difficult to identify with the persecuted; rather, it’s easier to become the persecutors. Sometimes that’s because of our apathy, sometimes it’s because we see others as collateral damage in the face of a greater cause, sometimes it’s because we see them as enemies to be crushed. This cannot stand; the church thrives under persecution, but become the persecutor and eventually we die, we die but not before we become Cain.

Stephen was the first Christian martyr. There have been plenty more since. We need to remember them, speak for them, amplify them. And we need to remember they’re our family, our brothers and sisters in Christ, held together by the same blood, one church that holds together, even in the face of persecution, even in the face of suffering.