Faith, Church and Mental Illness

A smiling cartoon Earth wrapped in a green ribbon, the logo of World Mental Health Day 2021

It’s been a long time since I last posted here. If you’d asked me, I’d have given reasonable excuses – my department at work closed down and I transferred into a new role, my sons were moving into different phases of their education, and sometimes life gets in the way of blogging. All of that is true.

But today is World Mental Health Day, and I guess that’s as good a time as any for a deeper level of truth. Because there are days when I stare at a monitor, unable to even click a mouse. There are days that I’m scared of everything, but that everything is really nothing, and so my brain is fighting my body all the time, the former trying to get on with life, the latter wanting nothing more than to run and hide. A couple of times, deep in the past but still complicated memories, I saw the future as nothing more than an implacable enemy. Looking back, those times frighten me.

These are the bad days, of course, and they come around less often than they did. I take medication. I speak to a counselor. I’ve come to the realisation that mental health is something to take seriously, that it’s not just an imaginary friend to physical illness or injury.

Typing this, knowing that this is a Christian blog, I feel bad that I don’t mention faith in that last paragraph. I think that’s because too often I base my faith on knowledge, and mental illness has a tendency to take knowledge out into the car park and give it a good kicking. The things I know about myself, about others, about the future, about God, they get bulldozed by anxiety, by stress, by depression. Prayer becomes something that’s forced out of my soul, a quick few minutes here and there in response to an immediate need or a request from our house group or a post on Twitter. And so prayer stops being about a relationship with God, because mental illness does a number on relationships too.

As a society we’re getting better at talking about mental health. As a child I remember people saying that so-and-so’s “nerves are bad” and not knowing what that meant. I remember someone saying that you should never tell your HR department that you were off with stress, fake the flu instead. That stigma is, I think, breaking down, but it still hasn’t disappeared and there are still enclaves where talking about, say, depression isn’t the done thing– how many older men have taken their own lives because the tools to talk about mental health were taboo?

And it’s still difficult in the church. We don’t always know what to do with mental illness. If someone’s in hospital receiving chemotherapy then it’s easy to put together a visiting rota, to make sure kids are collected from school, to make sure meals are prepared. Mental illness can be messier, there’s not a straight-forward response. There may be someone in our congregation who desperately wants to raise their hands in worship but it feels like they’ve got lead weights tied around their wrists. We need to find ways to help them lift that weight rather than judge them for a lack of faith. It’s those times that we have to take our call to be the hands and feet and love of Christ seriously, when, like with the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery, healing and liberation came through the presence of Christ.

There’s a line from Isaiah that always feels appropriate here: “A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not put out”.  This always makes me think of the compassion of God, his gentleness, a gardener who carefully binds up his plants against the wind, who carefully cups a candle in his hands and blows life back into embers. This feels like quiet work, work done behind the scenes, God as a caretaker fixing things up after the crowds have gone home, or a nurse working the night shift on a dark and quiet ward.

Maybe, to extend the metaphor, we need to celebrate the nurses and the caretakers as much as we celebrate the warriors and the surgeons.

And if it’s true that God sings over us, maybe we need a wider vision of that. Maybe we need to learn to sing lullabies and break-up songs as well as we sing anthems.

Maybe we just need to talk about things more.

As for me, I’ll keep going. There will be bad days, sure, but there are good days too, probably more of them than there were. There are still memories and ghosts to overcome. The future is unknown, but at least it’s no longer an enemy. God the nurse continues to heal, and each day is new.

Each day is new.

Childermas Again

The Killing of the Innocents by Herod, Leon Coginet

The original version of this post was written five years ago. It’s tragic to note that, since then, not much has changed; in some ways the situation has become worse. On the Feast of the Holy Innocents, this is something we need to confront; on the brink of a new year, this is something we need to take forward.

It’s the Christmas hangover of commemorations, isn’t it? The joy and beauty of the Nativity give way to the world’s brutal realities as Herod’s death squads march into town.

It’s not a part of the story we like to think about too much, a liminal atrocity on the fringes of the narrative. And yet so many of those kneeling beside the manger are either affected or complicit – Herod issues the order, sure, but it’s inadvertently thanks to the blunders of the Magi. Jesus, Mary and Joseph have to flee to Egypt, but what of the shepherds left out in the fields? Did any of them have infant sons waiting for them at home?

We pretend, of course, that this sort of thing is rare. That we live in a civilised society where children are valued and loved. And yet there are 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK (that’s gone up since I wrote my original post); UNICEF reports that one in six children globally live in extreme poverty. The UN tells us that around 33 million of the world’s refugees are under 18, but it takes a photograph of one of their bodies washed up on a beach to make us give a damn about that statistic for five minutes. Churches cover up child abuse.

Herod casts a long shadow.

Over recent years, I’ve slowly begun to appreciate the wisdom of the church calendar. Not just the big celebrations, but the hidden feast days, the obscure remembrances, the idea that someone somewhere decided it would be good to honour Herod’s victims, and in doing so remember all the other infant victims of our politics and greed, our rage and corruption. Childermas isn’t just a call to memory, it’s a call to repentance.

And yet there’s also space for hope – there has to be, because this is too important to fall victim to nihilistic cynicism. There are people working to end child poverty, people operating shelters so families can escape domestic violence, people opening their homes to refugees. They need our support and our prayers, because they’re saving children from war and want, violence and apathy; because they’re a sanctuary along the flight to Egypt; because they’re building the Kingdom of God in the shadow of Herod’s legacy and that’s a sacred calling, at Christmas and beyond.

O Emmanuel

The O Antiphons are a series of chants traditionally used across the final seven days of Advent. Each one is based on a particular characteristic of Jesus; the chant for 23rd December is called O Emmanuel, or O God is With Us; you can hear it sung below. Links to the full series can be found here.

We’re nearly there, we’re nearly at Christmas. The longest night is behind us, Mary and Joseph are almost at the stable, a new year is upon us. And yet it’s sometimes hard to draw comfort from this; for some, this Christmas season is going to be rough, either because COVID keeps them from their loved ones, or because there will be empty spaces around the table, or because this will be one more lonely day in an ocean of lonely days. Others will be working – nurses, doctors, all those invisible people who keep our countries moving, who keep the lights on, who make sure there’s food on the shelves for Boxing Day. This year has reminded us not to take these jobs for granted, that for many the 25th will be a work day. Others – volunteers, faith communities, charities – will be gearing up to bring something of Christmas into dire situations, food parcels, presents for kids, hygiene products. There are a lot of people relying on these services; there’s a lot of weight in those responsibilities.

This may sound a bit downbeat. Christmas is a time of celebration, of joy, of hope, and Christmas will come. But no matter how close we are to the finishing line, we’re still in Advent, that pause in which we remember exactly what we’re celebrating. Here, at the end of the O Antiphons, we hear the call that God is with us, that God doesn’t magically appear but is born in a stable, genes and divinity coalescing, God birthed into humanity. God isn’t with us as a spectator, feet untouched by dust, hair untouched by raindrops; God stands alongside us, familiar with grief and loss and heartbreak; understanding that sometimes the future contains horrors that have to be faced; knowing the pain of attending funerals and the joy of attending weddings.

And so God is with us; in the High Dependency Unit, in the refugee camp, in the queue at the foodbank, in the care home, in the cell block, at the protest, on the Zoom call. In the grief, in the fear, in the mental health crisis. Two millennia ago, Earth and Heaven came together in Bethlehem and that resonates onward to today. God is still with us.

O King of the Nations

The O Antiphons are a series of chants traditionally used across the final seven days of Advent. Each one is based on a particular characteristic of Jesus; the chant for 22nd December is called O Rex Gentium, or O King of the Nations; you can hear it sung below.

“Give us a king!” the people said.

“But aren’t I enough for you?” God replied.

“Nope. We want to be like everyone else. Give us a king!”

That was a long time ago, but we still want a king. We might not call them a king nowadays – maybe ‘Leader’ or ‘President’ or ‘Someone Remotely Competent” – someone who can fix this whole mess. It’s understandable, I guess, but there’s an edge to this, because often WE want a king who will sort out THEM. That’s been particularly highlighted throughout 2020, a year marked by division, x vs y. Factions and denominations and states and companies establish their little fiefdoms and build themselves up by tearing down others.

Into a world like this, Jesus comes as a baby, a symbol of a new start. He grows up to be not a warrior, but a carpenter, a builder, someone who fixes and repairs things. He comes as a healer, he comes as a storyteller. In a metaphorical kind of way he comes as a blacksmith, to beat swords into ploughshares, AK-47’s into ventilators. He doesn’t come as the sort of king we’re all used to, but a crown of thorns is still a crown.

Swords into Ploughshares by Kelly Latimore

His Kingdom exists throughout the world, and not just in the eschatological sense. Most of the time it’s hidden by noise and actions that don’t reflect Christ, it’s hidden by theocracies that claim that God hates all the people they do. It’s hidden because winning has become more important than healing, it’s hidden because being right has become more important than being kind.

But this year, things are strange. This year, things aren’t as we expected. This year, the new is normal. And that’s going to be difficult for so many of us; it’s going to be sad, it’s going to be lonely, it’s going to be heartbreaking, it’s going to be frightened. And that’s when we who claim to follow the upside-down King need to put down our swords, put down our proof-texts and pick up our saucepans, our debit cards, our contact lists. Because Christ’s Kingdom is just. Christ’s Kingdom is peaceful. Christ’s Kingdom is kind.

Blue Christmas 2020

Tonight will be the longest night, the night we’re furthest from the sun (here in the northern hemisphere at least). It’s cold, the darkness draws in, and astronomy becomes metaphor. We cycle through the season, springtime and harvest, summer and winter, but we can be wary about that awareness – what if the spring doesn’t arrive, what if the nights don’t get shorter, what if, what if, what if… It sometimes can feel like the night will go on forever, with the dawn nothing but a cruel mirage. Maybe this sounds like hyperbole. Maybe it sounds like truth. There are some who, in the midst of hospitals pushed to breaking point, politics turned sideshow and poverty knocking at too many doors, have said that the Great Conjunction tonight heralds the end of the world. 2020 has felt a bit like that; the year of COVID, the year of unveilings.

It’s here that I say that things do get better, that you’re stronger than you think you are, even when you don’t believe that. The nights get shorter, a bit more light every day. But there are times in the year that give us reasons to pause and acknowledge that sometimes things are hard, that there are those who would have been here who aren’t, that there are broken things and broken hearts, that at this time of year the music of Slade and Mariah can get drowned out by the noise of war drums, of scapegoating, of panic, or by the silence of absence, loneliness, despair. We can’t move on without acknowledging grief and sadness and loss.

“Every worship group should have a break-up song.” I can’t remember who said this – they had an Irish accent if that helps – but they were right. We like to talk of hope, of faith, joy; we’re less interested in talking about doubt, of sadness and trauma, of depression and despair and disappointment, as if these were two binary choices rather than different facets of the messiness of life.

In some traditions, today is a day to acknowledge and make room at the inn for sadness, for loss, of worry. The Nativity contains all these things alongside the hope and hallelujahs. Blue Christmas creates a space to recognise hurt and all we’ve lost. And maybe it’s appropriate that it coincides with the Feast of St. Thomas, the doubting disciple, the one who had to wait for a glimpse of hope, the one who embodies both cynicism and faith. Let’s not criticise Thomas too much – he was given hope in the midst of an impossible situation. The candle still flickers, the dawn still peeks above the horizon, a scarred hand still reaches out towards Thomas, towards us.

Because if we celebrate Blue Christmas tonight, it’s in the context of the days getting longer, increments of hope. Things can change, not because that’s an inevitability, but because we can look after each other, weep with those who weep, dance with those who sing. Sometimes, on the darkest night, God can seem far away, but that’s just an invitation to see him reflected in those around us, churches and communities as stars in the depths of the dark, candles raging against the night, a reminder that we’re still in advent, that Christmas is around the corner, that someone, somewhere, needs and wants you to be here tomorrow, next week, next Christmas.