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.

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.


Advent 2016: The Most Famous Stepfather in History

Other than his occupation, Joseph of Nazareth is famous for one thing and one thing alone: being a stepfather. His life has accumulated centuries of tradition, but turn to the Bible and Joseph is a fairly minimal presence – we don’t know if he was a contemporary of Mary or substantially older, we don’t know if he was really a carpenter or if the word would better be translated as ‘builder’, we don’t know why this loyal and righteous man disappears so suddenly from the pages of the gospels.

This last mystery is the one that’s always stuck with me. Tradition says he died of old age, but that always feels like a plot device necessary to support Mary’s eternal virginity. And yet there’s something shocking about saying he may have died of cancer, or violence, or an accident on a building site, something intimate and intrusive about the speculation. The very idea brings into focus the Now-But-Not-Yet Kingdom of God and all its tensions – the Son of God who healed so many couldn’t save the man who raised him. There’s something heartbreaking about that.

Maybe I take the story personally. I’m a stepfather myself, and that means you ask yourself questions, questions about where you fit in, about how to relate to your kids, about how it feels to be reminded you’re the latecomer every time someone realises you’ve got a different surname to your children. And yes, twenty centuries separate those specific questions from Joseph’s own experience, but something similar would have gone through his mind, when the workshop was quiet, when he lay awake at night.

But you put those thoughts aside. You have a family, you have kids, and you love them and look after them. That’s what Joseph did; from the start he tries to make the right choices. Instead of having Mary stoned for apparent adultery,  he decides to quietly divorce her and let her go. When he discovers the truth he doesn’t run, he accepts his role in God’s plan. And when the death squads come looking for Bethlehem’s baby boys, Joseph gets his family the hell out of Dodge and into Egypt. The Bible tells us he’s a righteous man, but that sounds lofty and pious; in reality, he strikes me as a normal, practical man who makes the right choices for those he loves. I pray I’d be able to do the same; often that prayer comes from my weakness and my failings.

But then, I think most of us are like Joseph – ordinary people trying to figure out ordinary lives in which the divine sometimes visits in unexpected ways. And when that happens, Joseph is a decent role model. There are so many calls to ‘Christian’ ‘masculinity’ that want men to be the next David, the next Braveheart. Yeah, okay, but I don’t want to be a warrior. Given the choice, I’d rather be a carpenter, rather be able to build things, rather be able to fix things, rather be able to craft things. I’m not, of course; my dad was the carpenter in the family, and my granddad. Me? I’m an office manager, a writer, an occasional preacher. And God can work through all those, and my family, just as he worked through Joseph. All I can do is pray that I’d be a righteous man; a righteous man and a decent stepdad.

Advent 2016: Be Still

Be still.

Advent is a time of expectation, so they say, a time of hopeful waiting. We light the Advent candles to guide us through the dark and hope for the coming of Christ at the end of it all.

That’s the theory. That’s the liturgical expectation. But Christmas is a busy time, pausing and waiting doesn’t feel possible because the festivities bear down on us like a freight train. We get so stressed out trying to find room at the inn that the stable is easily forgotten.

In the dark of a winter morning, I’ll be honest: these last few months have been hard. They’ve been stressful and frightening, the noise of hundreds of voices and demands all speaking at once. Details aren’t important, but it feels like a maelstrom, a whirlpool of emotion and fear, a babel of randomess that starts to feel conspiratorial. The storm rolled in, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The rational part of me knows that this storm is transitory, that it’s a downpour rather than a hurricane. But the rest of me sees the clouds, and the lightning, and the rolling, hungry waves.

Psalm 46 encourages us to be still, and in that stillness to sense and hear that God is present, that he is with us, that he’s on the throne. In the stillness we can find hope and start to trust. Maybe that’s part of the problem: knowing how to let go of it all and just trust. I’m still wedded and welded to the idea that there’s something I’m missing, some trick or hack or insight that would make everything right, that I’m just not smart enough to see.

I know that’s crazy. I know that’s not really the case. But I’m still scared of what will happen if I don’t figure out the secret incantation, the life goals ninja move that would make everything right. And that fear, that stress, that unexpected arrogance, keeps me from the stillness, keeps me from knowing that God is there, and that that’s enough. I want everything to change, to calm down, to stop being so damn noisy that I can’t hear God.

But that’s backwards, isn’t it? It’s hard to trust someone you don’t know. And knowing the theology and the dogma and the atonement theories isn’t a substitute for knowing God himself. Don’t get me wrong; I still follow Jesus, stumbling and fumbling along the way. It’s just that, when the rubber meets the road, he gets crowded out. Everything else looks bigger, more intimidating and imposing, even if it’s just an image of the Great and Powerful Oz rather than the conman behind the curtain.

And yet “Be still!” isn’t just a devotional suggestion; sometimes it’s salvation. “Be still!” is what Jesus commanded the storm when the disciples felt sure they were all gonna drown. And maybe that’s my calling throughout this Christmastide; to trust that the storm will eventually calm, and even if it doesn’t, to look into the eye of the hurricane anyway and see Jesus inside of it, letting him be the stillness in the squall, letting him drown out the words of the man behind the curtain.

Even when the man behind the curtain is me.