Talking about depression, anxiety, fear and healing.

Someone asked me some time ago whether I still believe in healing.

The answer I gave is that yes, I do, but that I tend to think about healing slightly differently these days. My thinking about healing has been largely conditioned through experience, by which I mean my own experience (of living with depression and anxiety) and the experience of ministering amongst others as a parish priest.

In the past I have prayed unbelievably hard (perhaps you have to) for miracles to be performed. I have prayed that pain will be removed and health fully restored. I have prayed for the miraculous. Now, let me be clear: I do believe that the miraculous can and does occur, but I also know that my prayers for a wonder miracle have tended to go ‘unanswered,’ (where I am the judge and final arbiter of what wonder and answered prayer looks like!)

Wonder miracles can, and perhaps do, occur but, surely they are the exception rather than the norm?

Nowadays I tend to focus on the ing in healing. I tend to regard healing in process terms. I regard it as attending with love and compassion to the reality of the human condition.

In my benefice we have three aspirations: hospitality, holiness and healing. They all defy precise definition and they all clearly relate to and inform each other: you can’t really be a healing community, unless you are a hospitable community, you can’t really be a hospitable community unless you, in some way, commit to seeking to grow into the likeness of Christ, the host, and the Messiah. These aspirations are about as close to a vision or mission statement as we can manage.

So what is this thing called healing and why am I so passionate about it?

I am passionate about healing because poor mental health has been an enduring feature of my life, and the great lie that I have been the victim of for most of my life is that I must suffer alone. Depression and anxiety (and I have suffered with both – they are my ugly and uninvited ‘twin impostors’) are not silent conditions: they breathe pain into both your mind and your body, they tell you things.

They tell you that nobody will believe you if you tell them how you really feel and that, in any case, and that you really shouldn’t feel as you do, after all……And, the cruelest lie they tell you is that your life has no value, followed closely by ‘they would be better off without you.’ 

We need to be clear: anxiety and depression can lead us on the ugliest of all pilgrimages, the one from isolation to the grave.

The fact that I am not in the grave is the greatest miracle of all, for I have had periods of my life where death seemed the most favorable of outcomes. I have cried into my pillow every night a prayer of anguished pain: ‘Lord take this pain away, or don’t let me wake up tomorrow.’ This has been my sincerest, most heartfelt, and, thank God, seemingly unanswered prayer. I have also felt so, so, angry at God, for surely as a Christian I shouldn’t feel like this, should I?

Christianity, faith, liturgy sometimes doesn’t help, in fact it can make things a whole lot worse: ‘I shouldn’t feel like this.’ Hearing about the Fruit of the Spirit, or the fact that Jesus came to give life in all its abundance is a pretty hard message to receive when you feel in the pits, when just getting to a church has taken every vestige of residual energy, and when everyone else appears so on message, and when abundance can only be measured in terms of the ability to get through the liturgy without bursting into tears, or exploding in a fit of rage.

Going to church when you feel crushed by despair and shot through with anxiety can be just so hard, and so conflicting: ‘I shouldn’t, they don’t, and where for …….sake are you God. Will you just do something God-like? Make it all go away, or make me go away,’ has been my mental health lament. And, as I now know, it’s a pretty common lament.

Well I am still here, I haven’t (as yet) gone away, or been taken away, so something must have happened, something must have changed. So what is it that happened, and what role has the church played in my healing?

First and foremost the church has given me the gift of friendship. I have been fortunate to have had a very close friendship, with a wonderful man (Nick), who sadly died last year, whose own spirituality was hard won. I have other wonderful friends who know something of my back story and the sometimes grim realities of my daily pilgrimage.  They are my best counselors and they are all people who can, to some extent, say ‘me too.’ I now know, through the church, that others stand in solidarity with me, and I with them, and this helps. It helps dispel the great lies. Friendship is a subtle gift, but it’s a great and, I would say, miraculous gift. So, thank you to all my friends, those me-tooers that have been, and remain, fellow pilgrims.

Secondly, I have been forced, in the light of experience, to rethink the ministry of healing. Healing is, for me, no longer coterminous with cure and this is a really crucial point. Cure sets, for me, an impossible standard, and impossible standards make things a whole lot worse. Impossible standards render the ‘you’re not worth it…..you’re not good enough and they would be better off without you’ lines truly credible. Now I think of healing as fostering the possibility of living with, through and beyond anxiety, depression and fear (this is how we style our mental health liturgy). Framing healing in these terms has allowed me understand something of the abundance that Jesus offers. Framing healing in these terms seems and feels both pragmatic and realistic, and maybe that’s good enough?

As a parish priest I firmly believe that the church must take mental health seriously as part of our healing ministry. In fact I believe that the slow and attentive work of ministering into a context where poor mental health is on the rise is the most important, most challenging, and potentially most fruitful aspect of our healing ministry.

My advice (and I am sorry if this sounds pompous and presumptive) to any church interested in mental health ministry is to start by fostering a culture where the reality of anxiety, depression and fear are acknowledged, affirmed and normalized. Churches need to be hospitable not just to people but to the realities of the human condition. I would also encourage churches not to be too ambitious. We mustn’t over-promise. We mustn’t add to the burdens of already overburdened people. But, what we can do is pray. We can pray that those who suffer will be able to live with, through and beyond depression, anxiety and fear. Churches can be places of deep healing: communities that attend to the reality of life and places of friendship, solidarity and prayer.

Attention, friendship, solidarity and prayer, these four, can act as real antidotes to the lies of the ‘twin impostors.’

Without these four can there be any real healing?

 

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Talking of giving thanks

I suspect that we all liked to be thanked. Somehow when we are thanked we feel valued. And, when we feel valued, we become creators of value. Gratitude and thankfulness are positively, missionally, contagious.

There are so many people we need to feel thankful for in our churches but, for some reason, we frequently seem reluctant to express our gratitude.

St. Paul, in Ephesians 1, 15 -end, commends the ministry of thanksgiving: ‘I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers,’ (verse 16). As I was reading this passage and digesting Bishop Helen-Anne Hartley’s excellent reflection on it (in Reflections for Daily Prayer) I was struck by the way that St. Paul links gratitude with prayer.

Can we be truly grateful separate from prayer? Just a thought.

I was further struck by the way that St. Paul seems to suggest that art (or do I mean craft) of giving thanks relates to mission, evangelism and revelation, for his prayer is that those for whom he is expressing gratitude will be  given ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation,’ (verse 17).

It feels as though St. Paul might be saying that a community where gratitude, appreciation and thanksgiving are the norm will, through the work of the Spirit, be a hospitable, wise, and revelatory community; a community that points beyond the immediate and obvious to a greater and liberating truth; a community that does so simply by being its very best self.

Could gratitude and thanksgiving be not only the essence of prayer but also the very stuff of mission and evangelism?

True gratitude and deep thankfulness aren’t cheap graces, but costly graces. They are virtues that need to be crafted in the midst of the joys and irritations of ordinary life and through the disciplined rhythms of Christian life. If we rely on spontaneity and affection our gratitude may be just a tad shallow; our mission and evangelism trite and ineffectual.  Maybe the difficult journey into real gratitude and deep thanks can only be eased through prayer? Again, just a thought.

We also need prayer to help us cope with the pain of unrequited rejection. I am always struck by the fact that nine out of ten lepers didn’t come back to thank Jesus for their healing (Luke 17, 11-19), but one did. We perhaps need to let go of any notions that thanksgiving is a guarantor of success. We mustn’t make thanksgiving a mere strategy, but instead trust in the process. After all one out of ten really isn’t that bad!

The Church, which is the Body of Christ, needs to be a community of thanksgiving and not simply for our own sake but for the sake of the world, for when we give thanks for all that we have been given, and for all the saints who we encounter on our pilgrimage through life, we add missional value; we help shape the sort of communities to which people might just want to belong, and that, it seems to me, resides right at the heart of mission and evangelism.

So thank you to all who sing and play, decorate and administrate, fetch and carry, wash and dry, read and pray. May you do all that you do with gratitude in your hearts. May we all be blessed with ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation.’ 

 

 

 

 

 

Talking of sacramental mission (and worship)

I have just spent a wonderful, inspiring, challenging and, yes, just occasionally irritating (get over yourself Andrew) few days at the On Fire Mission.

For me On Fire represents an opportunity to get away to be bathed in sacramental, mystical, and charismatic renewal in the company of an eclectic and endlessly interesting group of fellow pilgrims.

At On Fire I found myself telling my story, or my conversion story, several times. Put in more evangelical terms I gave my ‘testimony.’ I think it’s important to tell our stories (or give our testimonies) as a means of encouragement for others and to remind ourselves of the wonderfully interweaving components of our own journey. Telling our stories also challenges assumptions; assumptions about mission, evangelism, worship and conversion (to name just a few!)

So here goes, with a little bit of testimony:

I didn’t go to church as a child, although I did go to Christian schools. These schools played a massive part in bringing me to faith (thank you). At school I learnt the great stories of the faith. I also learnt to say my prayers.  At school I found out about Jesus and in some ways I encountered Jesus. These schools set me on my journey.

My first experience of going to church with my mum was in 1980 or 1981, I can’t remember which, but I do remember being incredibly, fantastically, excited about the prospect of going to church. My excitement had been gestating for 365 days; an entire year. And, how I loved my first church service. In fact, truth be told, it was at that service where I fully knew, in the imagination of my heart, that Jesus Christ is Lord and that when we worship he, ‘the Lord,’ truly ‘is here.’

I can’t remember the sermon although I could have a good stab at guessing the readings and the hymns, for my first service was Midnight Mass and the venue was the parish church in Marlow. It was at and through this service that I was able to start my journey into the mystery of faith.’ I firmly believe that it was at this service that the idea that one day I might stand behind the altar was planted in my heart.

So how did I end up getting so excited about MidNight Mass, so excited that I nagged my mum, for a whole year, to take me?

The answer is staggering simple: the previous year, the year when it was deemed that I was old enough to stay up late and see Christmas in, I watched MidNight Mass on television and was mesmerized. I found it exciting, compelling and inviting. I just knew I had to go. I was neither baptised nor confirmed at the time. I had no knowledge of church rules, still less of church etiquette. I just had to go.

At my first MidNight Mass, I knew that the story was true.

St. Paul famously wrote that ‘for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,’ (1 Corinthians 11, 26).  At my first Eucharist, that Christmas night, the effect of participating in the Sacrament of the Eucharist  was to convince me of the truth; the truth that is  the ‘mystery of faith.’

I am in no way suggesting that the sacraments alone have the potential to convert hearts and minds, for it is clearly the case that a great many people, perhaps the majority of people, come to faith through nurture courses and other well-tested methods of mission and evangelism.

I also recognise that school and my mother played a hugely significant role in my journey; thank you. What I am suggesting, however, is that the church mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, and that we should trust in the efficacy of the sacraments as converting ordinances in their own right, or do I mean rite?

Rites and sacraments are powerful, theologically authentic, time-honoured, and effective converting ordinances that we, the ‘body of Christ,’ should simply, perhaps naively,trust in.

Sometimes all we need to do is what we do, leaving the rest up to God.

‘Great is the mystery of faith.’

Talking about Thomas; realism, mission & evangelism.

I love the story of Doubting Thomas (John 20, 19 -end). In fact with each passing year I love it more.

Like many great stories it is multi layered and nuanced. Yes, it can be read straightforwardly but it can also be read playfully. Perhaps the facet of the story that grabs me most is, however, its sheer realism and pragmatism. John starts his account by telling us that ‘it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house of were locked for fear of the Jews.’ The apostles, it seems, were afraid; afraid of what might happen to them. Fear was a characteristic of the Apostolic Church. Fear, to my mind, remains a characteristic of the ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ What and who we are afraid of course varies from context to context and, sadly in many places the church continues to be persecuted but overall fear, I think, is endemic to the human and ecclesiological condition.

I am a fearful person, ministering in a fearful church.

Fear is often thought of as a negative characteristic and it can be if it leads to inaction (or wrong action). But, maybe fear can be a positive virtue if it leads to an acceptance of weakness, an openness to the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the provision of peace? Perhaps the only way of overcoming fear is through the recognition of fear? Just a thought.

John’s telling of the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ has been instrumental to my understanding of mission and evangelism. It’s easy (and I think cheap) to criticize, or indeed mock, Thomas so, for me, the real challenge in the story is the invitation to cherish the ‘doubting’ Thomases amongst us. How many doubters are in our churches week, by week, by week? How good as a church are we at making and sustaining friendships with true doubters?  Does our ecclesiology, perhaps mistakenly, insist that ‘true’ faith is a prerequisite of church membership, that right belief must come first?

I would like to gently suggest that the story of ‘Doubting Thomas’ challenges us to accept that hospitality, welcome and friendship are foundational to revelation, faith and belief. As church communities we mustn’t be too smug about that which has been revealed to us. We mustn’t pat ourselves on the back or set ourselves up on a pedestal because we believe. We must receive revelation as a gift and a grace; the unmerited work of God.

In John’s story it is clear that Jesus is the source of all revelation, and that the location for revelation is the community (the church, the ecclesial body). Jesus first reveals himself to the disciples, and then to Thomas. Those who had received the first revelation continued to offer Thomas friendship and a place of belonging, bearing with his atheistic ‘unless I see,’ creed, and look what happened: Jesus took the initiative and revealed Himself allowing Thomas to proclaim ‘my Lord and my God.’ 

Are our churches places of hospitality, friendship,inclusion and, in God’s own time, revelation?

Does the story of Doubting Thomas provide a realistic model for ecclesiology, mission and evangelism?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking of Trump, State Visits, Question Time & the Church

I don’t normally watch Question Times these days, it’s bad for my mental health. But, this Thursday (25/4) I arrived home late from picking up my daughter and her girlfriend turned on the television, and voila there it was: Question Time.

As I watched the thing that struck me most was the level of sheer anger, both in the audience and amongst the panel. We are, it seems, an angry country, and anger is a close relative of that most pernicious of vices, hate. Where anger leads hate often follows, with hate finding its fullest, ugliest, expression in violence. Watching Question Time this week has left me feeling fearful for that which is to come.

What disturbed me most was the toxicity of the debate over whether President Trump should be afforded a state visit. The anger levels seemed to me to be highest during this part of the show. To be clear and upfront I don’t believe that President Trump should be afforded, or do I mean awarded, a state visit. In fact I believe that state visits should be infrequent occurrences with invitations being issued sparingly, but be that as it may.

I am no Trump fan and I am aware of the precise time time when it became clear to me that I couldn’t offer the then future president the benefit of the doubt.  My ‘you have crossed a boundary moment’ was the occasion when Mr. Trump (as he then was) cruelly mimicked a disabled journalist from the podium.

As the proud father of a daughter who lives with, through, and beyond epilepsy, cerebral palsy and spasticity, I knew in the savage actuality of that moment that the president to be couldn’t really care less about the poor, the injured, the marginalized and the different. All I heard was his ‘mocking voice’ calling out as the cheer leader to the  ‘scoffers.’

Watching Mr. Trump mock a disabled journalist was a very great epiphany.  I don’t want the President of the United States, or indeed any political leader, to be someone who gains their popularity through the ignoble arts of mocking and scoffing. Do you?

I do, however, wish to live in a world characterized by ‘kingdom values;’ a world where justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit are the desired for, and strived for, animating virtues.

I want to live in a society where all may flourish and none need fear.

I want to live in a society that cares, seriously cares, about the poor, the disabled and the marginalized.

I want to live in a society that celebrates and affirms difference.

I want to live in a society that understands that exercising prudent stewardship over the created order is of paramount importance.

I want to live in, and help shape such a society, because I think that these are kingdom values. When the Church prays ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven’ I think that what we are (or should be) praying for is the dignity of human difference and the bounty of the earth. To love and esteem human difference whilst faithfully caring for the created order is, perhaps, to live by what St. Paul refers to as ‘a still more excellent way,’ (1 Corinthians 12, 31).

The Church, for the sake of the world, must speak prophetically into the civic sphere whilst incarnating the ‘still more excellent way.’ We must be a new model community offering respite from, and a prophetic challenge to, a world increasingly characterized by anger, hatred and cruelty. We must dare to truly show that ‘perfect love,’ does indeed ‘cast out all fear,’ (1 John 4, 18).

Only when we do this will be a truly, authentically, evangelical and missional church, offering to the world through ‘word’ and ‘deed’ (Colossians 3, 17) a ‘still more excellent way.’

 

 

 

Talking of Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday is the day in the church’s calendar that really gets to me.

I think it is the day that leads me into the acceptance of that strangest and most mystical of doctrines: the (hypostatic) doctrine that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine. It is the day that, above all others, makes me want to believe. Maundy Thursday is the day that compels me to seek union with Christ and to own the word Christian. Maundy Thursday is the day when presiding at the Eucharist takes on an entire new meaning.

Yes, I know that everything that Jesus has said and done up and until this point points towards his divinity, but, for me, it is the events of Maundy Thursday that reveal the fullness of the hypostatic union. Put colloquially Maundy Thursday gets to me.

On Good Friday the words of utter, mind shattering, compassion spoken from the cross, ‘Father forgive,’ and ‘women here is your son,’ follow on from, and are the supernatural consequence of, the Maundy Thursday revelation.

On Maundy Thursday Jesus gives the apostles ‘a new commandment;’ the commandment ‘to love on another as I have loved you.’ On Good Friday Jesus shows us what such love looks like, from the cross. The cross is the place of completion, the place where the meaning of the new commandment is finally, and for all time, revealed.

This notion of completeness is important. Presiding at the Good Friday Eucharist from a bare altar, stripped of all finery, with the reserved sacrament from ‘the day before he died,’ ensures that the words ‘do this in remembrance of me,’ become a lived reality.

So what is it about Maundy Thursday that bursts through all my barriers rendering my faith experiential, and known? Well, put simply, it’s the words and actions of Jesus, the Messiah.

I find it simply staggering that knowing what is to befall him Jesus takes the time to feed his apostles, to wash their feet, to give them one last tutorial in the art of divine love. It is through these simple acts that the divinity and humanity of Christ is revealed as coexisting in perfect (hypostatic) union.

I know that as a mere human being I could never face such a cruel end by continuing to give of my very self. I know that as a mere human being I could never complete the work of Maundy Thursday on Good Friday by asking for forgiveness for those who ‘know not what they are doing,’ (Luke 23, 34). It is the words and actions of Jesus on Maundy Thursday and into Good Friday above all else that convince me that Jesus truly is the ‘Son of God.’ 

Maundy Thursday is the day that penetrates my very soul.

 

 

 

 

Speaking of rugby and religion, inclusion and exclusion

Rugby and religion have been two of my constant interests. In fact they have been, variously, my consuming passions.

I started playing rugby when I was eight and carried on until I was thirty-one. I first became interested in religion at school and think that I am still am. I couldn’t say for sure whether, over the span of my life, I have spent more time in churches or rugby clubs. Both rugby and religion have delighted me and left me feeling let down.

It’s rare that rugby and religion, or faith, share the same common ground, focusing on and seeking to referee the same issues. Over the last week or so they have, for both rugby and religion have been seeking to adjudicate on ‘Issues in Human Sexuality.’ 

At the end of a bitterly contested week the response of the rugby community, the global rugby community, and its’ leaders, has been both decisive and inclusive, the response of the religious community mediated through her leaders has been decisive yet exclusive.

I am, of course, referring to and comparing the way that the Australian (and possibly English) Rugby Union have dealt with homophobic statements by a leading player, with the justification by the church for excluding same-sex spouses from attending the Lambeth Conference.

Last week one of Australia’s leading players, Israel Folau, tweeted that  for “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.” Sadly, it seems as though one of England’s leading players Billy Vunipola, who acknowledges that he likes ‘a few beers,’ has rushed to support Folau.

Folau, in particular, is pure box office. He has played for his country at both Rugby Union (on 74 occasions)  and Rugby League. He has also been a professional Aussie Rules player. Australia, don’t forget, is one of those nations where football (association football) is a minority sport. Vunipola is a star of the English game, a key man for both club and country. England play well when Vunipola plays well.

The Australian Rugby Union have acted decisively by sacking Folau, whilst the Rugby Football Union have arranged to meet with Billy Vunipola. Both governing bodies are proud of the part that rugby has played in promoting LGBT equality.

Thirty years ago when I was a rugby playing church goer LGBT people would probably have felt ill at ease in both the rugby club and the church. Nowadays rugby prides itself on its inclusivity. Gareth Thomas, who captained both Wales and the British Lions, came out as gay whilst playing. He was fully supported by his friends, his union, and the rugby community at large. Nigel Owens, the openly gay referee, was the man with the whistle in the 2016 Word Cup Final. Nick Heath is a leading commentator. All of these, alongside many others, are welcomed as equals in rugby clubs up and down the land.

Are LGBT Christians welcomed in churches up and down the land? Are LGBT Christians (and non Christians for that matter) more likely to receive an unconditional welcome in a rugby club than a church?

Also last week the Archbishop of Canterbury talked of his pain at the ‘necessary’ decision that he, as the man in the middle with the whistle, had to take to exclude same-sex spouses from the Lambeth Conference. The justification for the decision was the requirement to secure the highest possible turnout. The quality of the conference, it seems, is to be determined by the quantity at the conference.

Apparent (pretend) unity and the appeasement of the conservative voice appear to be the driving impulses. In order to maximize numbers exclusion is deemed to be a painful necessity. Can this be right? What sources (because I can’t find any) would justify such a model of Christian Ethical Reasoning? But more importantly what further harm could the Archbishop’s decision inflict on countless others? Does the Archbishop not realize that he is legitimizing exclusion and discrimination at every level solely in order to achieve a high turn out at the Lambeth Conference?

The former Scotland international Scott Hastings, who has described himself as ‘a fellow rugby commentator and proud father of Corey Hastings and his husband Daniel Hastings’  last week wrote to endorse the views of Nick Heath who warned that Folau’s views could ’cause harm to hundreds of thousands of people.’ 

If Heath and Hastings are correct in their analysis of Folau’s views, then the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to be troubled by his decision to override his prior commitment to ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the Church.’ If a well attended Lambeth Conference is our highest and most noble aspiration then the Church should be deeply concerned at the decision made by our man with the whistle.

Legitimizing homophobia should always run contrary to the values of the church (of England), especially since the Archbishops have called for a ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the church.’ There is nothing radical or inclusive about the decision to exclude. There is also nothing necessary about the decision to exclude. But, there may well be something harmful and dangerous about the decision to exclude. If Heath and Hastings are correct then Archbishop Justin should for the greater good, the good that exists beyond the Lambeth Conference, revisit his decision.

Stuart Barnes, another rugby pundit, stated in his Sunday Times article that ‘the problem isn’t either man, it is the message.’  He doesn’t regard Folau or Vunipola as bad people but rather as people who have been badly schooled in and through the church. I can’t help but believe that Barnes, a self-confessed unbeliever, is correct, for the place where these two box office rugby stars learnt to discriminate was not the rugby club bar but the church pulpit. How tragic and sad is that?

For the long-term good of all the Archbishop should change the message rather than focusing on the numbers, for when all is said and done, so what if the Lambeth Conference is poorly attended? It’s the quality of the thing that counts not the numbers.

Rugby and religion have been my two consuming passions. Over the last week or so rugby’s global leaders seem to have shown far greater theological leadership than their churchy equivalents. How ironic that the rugby club can now be regarded as a place of radical new inclusion, whereas the church remains an exclusive club.

Please Archbishop Justin focus on the message and not the numbers.

‘Hundreds of thousands of people’ are depending on you, don’t let them down.