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.

Shrove Tuesday

Today’s the day of Carnival for many, one last explosion of music and joy and excess before the clock ticks over into the ashes of Lent. Feasting passes the baton to fasting and, if you’re of a sacrificial bent, you have just hours to decide what needs to be set aside for the next forty days.

Me? I know what I have to give up. I don’t have the healthiest relationship with food. I stop off at the supermarket on my way home and buy chocolate or sandwiches that I don’t need. And this is stupid of me, because most of the time I’m not hungry, and because I’m a sedentary office worker who is putting on weight, and because all those extra pounds are bound to be aggravating my sleep apnea. I sit in the car, eating; “Okay, this is the last time,” I say, but it never is. A thousand commuting carnivals that never give way to Lent.

None of this is about hunger, nor is it about fuel. If anything it’s medication, I guess, something that fires up a hormone in some gland or whatever that makes me feel… I’m not sure what. Not good, not really. Numb? The comfort of a familiar habit? Because I suffer from depression and anxiety, and over-eating gives me something to focus on than my own thoughts, my own fears, my own lurking anticipations.

So Lent 2020 is less than a spiritual practice, more like a floating plank I need to grab hold of. We domesticate sacrifice sometimes, give up something we don’t really need to give up but that sounds good when we talk about it on a Sunday over coffee. But then there are the times that the sacrifice has to look more like Abel’s than Cain’s, times when it has to mean something real for the sake of my body, my heart, my soul. There’s a scared voice that tells me I’m of no worth, that tempts me with revelations of coming disaster and the anesthesia of despair, and I naively try and momentarily stop that with an all-day breakfast sandwich. Often the Co-op looms larger than the Cross.

So I’m writing this on Shrove Tuesday with a feeling that’s halfway between honesty and self-indulgence. This is just how I process things, and I throw the thoughts out there in the hope that they’ll be recognisable to someone who needs to know they’re not alone. I tap my phone with a pen top and the thoughts become words and that makes them real somehow. And they need to be real to me, for the sake of my health, for the health of my soul. Tomorrow is the Day of Ashes but everything feels like ashes lately. No, tomorrow starts a journey that leads somewhere more True than food and lies. And here I sit, staring at my walking boots, to scared to put them on, too scared not to.

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.

Holy Saturday: Desolation

Once, long ago, I lay curled up on my bed feeling hopeless and defeated and like every positive future had withered and died. I don’t talk about this often – this may even be the first time – and although the passage of time has taken away the feelings, I still remember the cloying numbness, the claustrophobic fog of depression.

That time passed, praise God, but the feelings return at times; many years later, weeks before going on holiday, I woke with the conviction that, if I went to New York I’d die. It was a lie, of course, a falsehood generated from who knows where. And I went to New York and saw the Statue of Liberty and a busker who looked like Hendrix tuning his guitar but never actually playing. I went to New York, because sometimes simply doing something good is a victory.

I won’t say I’m free of all this; it manifests differently now, I take medication and I get through it. And that’s why I often talk about the sort of faith that hangs over a cliff by its fingernails, because anyone who tells you that faith is pain free, that belief is a one way ticket to Big Rock Candy Mountain is trying to sell you something, or maybe just trying to cast their own spell to ward off troubles.

Holy Saturday sits at the heart of Easter weekend, an awkward heartbreak innoculating us against cheap triumphalism. There’s a season for everything, and Holy Saturday is a time to weep, a time to mourn, a time to lay flowers at a graveside. It’s a time to recognise trauma (let’s not forget Mary, who saw her son torn apart by scourges and nails), a time to cry out “This is wrong” and “That shouldn’t have happened” and “Never again”.

This is a time to acknowledge, in the silence, that the world isn’t as it should be, that the future is frightening, that oppression and persecution are real, that things are broken. This is not a time to pretend that pain isn’t a present reality, that troubles are simply the result of faithlessness. Your pain is real. But while this may sound naive and impossible, it’s not the end of the story.

Because Holy Saturday isn’t a nihilistic full stop. It’s part of something bigger, of which pain is a part but so’s hope. That spluttering candle glimmer may be faint but it’s there, the light at the end of a narrow tunnel. It’s Saturday, as the preacher might have said, but Sunday’s coming.

We have to hold on to a vision of hope, all of us, because even if we’re not going through our own dark night of the soul, we can stand in solidarity with those who are, we can weep and march and sit and pray and stand with others. There are too many paid-off guards peddling fake news and weaponised visions, and so we need Holy Saturday to remind us that our own pain and history and honesty can be a beacon, so many Marys in the garden who’ve seen the stone rolled away.

Today we sit and mourn, and while we may still be doing that come the dawn, we’ve made it through the day, and the sun still rises.