Strength in Weakness

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A sermon for the 8th July, 2018

Karl Barth once said that opening the Bible was like stepping through a doorway into a strange new world which, like the past, is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

aidan-hart-apostle-paulToday’s reading is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). They’re a church with problems, and Paul has written to them twice before, and visited them, trying to solve those problems. Now he’s writing to them again, partly because some smooth-talking “super-apostles” have turned up, saying the Corinthians should listen to them, rather than him.

Do you remember the televangelists from the 80s, all big hair and shiny teeth? I think of them when I read this letter, talking about all the visions God has given to them, of the miraculous powers they possess, of the health and wealth that awaits those who follow them.

Paul spends a long time, in what is called his “Fool’s Speech”, talking about his qualifications as an apostle. He can match any of their claims: he is a Jew, and a descendant of Abraham; he has been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked and in constant danger as a minister of Christ; he has performed signs and wonders, and he’s had visions and revelations from the Lord, too. In the things that he has done, he is more than equal to these “super-apostles”, but the funny thing is, he calls all those things, and his boasting in them foolishness.

At the beginning of our reading, Paul is boasting, unwillingly, about the visions and revelations he has had. He, too, has heard from God, and been caught up into Paradise – but that’s as far as Paul will go, because it isn’t the great things he has seen and done that are important – it is actually his weakness that he wants to boast about.

The country of God is a strange one, and in the world of Christ’s Kingdom things are different to the world outside. Here, weakness is something to celebrate, because God’s “power is made perfect in weakness”.

Paul has been given what he calls “a thorn”, “a messenger of Satan” to torment him. If you can think of an illness, disability, or moral temptation, I can practically guarantee that someone has declared that that is what Paul’s thorn was, but he doesn’t specify, presumably because he thought it unimportant. It was something unpleasant enough for him to keep asking God to take it away, and it was something that God refused to take away. It was a weakness that he would continue to live with, and through which God’s power would be manifested in him.

eng-jade-teaser-BM-Bayern-Upshire-jpgSometimes, a weakness can transform someone’s life into a powerful force for good. Do you remember Jade Goody? She was a reality television ‘star’, a laughingstock who was ridiculed for her lack of general knowledge, remembered for a racist incident on Big Brother in 2007. Then, a year later, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died in 2009 at the age of 27, after very publically sharing the progression of her illness. She used her terminal cancer to raise awareness and to encourage women to be screened, and in what they called “the Goody effect”, there was a massive increase in the number of young women being screened for cervical cancer. In the weakness of her very public illness and death, she drew power to save the lives of others.

“Weakness is power” sounds like something from 1984, on a par with “war is peace” or “freedom is slavery”, but it’s a theme running throughout the Bible. We can see it in our Gospel reading (Mark 6:1-13), as the people of Nazareth show their incredulity that Jesus, their local builder, has come back to them preaching with great wisdom and working miracles with power, which astonishes them so much that they’re offended by him. We see it, too, in the sending out of the twelve apostles who are, quite frankly, dimwits at this point in the Gospel, still confused as to who Jesus is and what he is here for. Not only that, but Jesus has them go out in just the clothes they stand up in, vulnerable, and dependent on others. Looking from the outside, they are weak, and yet they “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

02f01And there is greater weakness yet to come, the very heart of the Gospel. Jesus, God in the flesh, will come under the power of others, and have his body broken and disabled upon the cross. And on that instrument of humiliation, Jesus will die. It is hard to think of a greater demonstration of weakness than that.

There is weakness on Calvary, but from that weakness comes power, as, three days later, the power of God will be magnificently manifested in Christ’s resurrection. The weakness of Calvary and the power of Easter are entwined, the great mystery at the heart of Christian faith. At the conclusion of Paul’s letter, just after our reading, he writes that Christ “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” (2 Corinthians 13:4)

Over the last fifteen years, ever since I experienced depression as a student, I’ve spent quite some time thinking about disability. Every one of us has weaknesses, temporary or permanent. All of us are jars of clay, and fragile, breakable as a cup dropped onto the floor. We experience illness, disability, hardship, sleepless nights, sorrow, and all the different pains of being human. Others may have different, harder, or lighter troubles than ours, but we could all join in with Job’s gloomy assessment that “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble”, or with Newman’s prayer asking God to “support us all the day long of this troublous life.

I described it as “gloomy”, because contemplating our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, can be quite a cheerless task. Yet, when Paul talks about his vulnerabilities; his ‘thorn’, the persecutions he has experienced and the physical hardships and rejection he has endured, he is anything but gloomy – he rejoices in them, saying, “when I am weak, then I am strong.

Can you imagine a political leader, appealing for our votes with the message, “I am weak”? Or a national leader revealing they lack something vital for the job? Our leaders like to emphasise strength; that they can deal with anything, they lack nothing, and we are safe in their hands. But Paul, and other leaders in that strange country of the Bible are a bit different. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of Moses, the great lawgiver and prophet who led his people from slavery to the borders of the Promised Land. Moses had a weakness, a disability which you’d think would rule him out from being a leader – he stuttered. When God appears to him within the burning bush, telling him to lead the Israelites to freedom, Moses says he can’t, for he is “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10) – making him an odd choice to teach and to lead. You might expect God to heal Moses of that weakness so that he could take up his rôle, but he doesn’t, just like he didn’t take away Paul’s thorn. Instead, God says, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak”. (Exodus 4:11-12)

when-i-am-weak-he-is-strongIt is God who makes weakness into strength, and God chooses to make his power perfect, or fulfilled, in weakness. Weaknesses aren’t pleasant for us, whether they’re hard times, or whether they’re a vulnerability which is part of us. Like Paul, we might ask God again and again to remove them, and have the answer be “no”. We may fear that our weakness stops us from leading the life God wants of us, or from sharing the love of God with others. That isn’t the case, for in this strange, upside-down country of God it is through weakness, through the brokenness that we all, one way or another, share, that he works most powerfully.

When we confront the fact that we are weak, vulnerable and broken, it is then that we realise our dependency on God. It is at those moments that we know that we need God to make us whole, and that the things we achieve aren’t because we are wonderful, but because God graciously works through us. When we are feeling strong, or are “too elated”, as Paul puts it, we face the danger of forgetting all that God does for us and through us. As Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician” (Mark 2:17),  and it is in our weakness that we recognise our need for Christ, who faced ultimate weakness, broken upon the cross.

And when we are weak, and when we suffer, when we rely upon the Crucified One and not upon our own ‘strength’, that is when our weaknesses can be transformed, resurrected into strengths by the power of God.

Lord God, our refuge and strength,
in our weakness, we can do nothing without your help.
May we look upon the weakest of our society with new eyes
for within them lies the greatest potential for your strength to be shown.
Through all our weaknesses, may your power be made known,
to the greater glory of your name. Amen.

I’d like to take a moment to plug “Disability and Jesus” and their forthcoming Daily Office. I’ve no affiliation to them (aside from following them on Twitter) but I admire their work.

Review: Cutting Edge

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2652175‘Cutting Edge: Witnessing Rites of Passage in a Therapeutic Community’ Elizabeth Baxter
in Controversies in Body Theology ed. by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood (London: SCM Press, 2008) pp48-69

While there a number of Christian books offering advice and help for self-injurers and their families, it is rare to discover theological thinking about self-injury. Within this book, which focusses on theology and the wounded bodies of women, Rev’d Elizabeth Baxter, Executive Director of Holy Rood House, Thirsk, has contributed an essay drawing on her personal experience as pastor and chaplain to a Christian therapeutic community.

Within her essay, she describes self-injury in theological and psychological terms, and sees self-injurers as Christ/Christa figures whose wounds tell a story, and calls upon the Christian community to walk alongside them as witnesses and agents of structural change.

Continue reading “Review: Cutting Edge”

Coping with Spiritual Dryness

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Then the mortal coldness of the soul like death itself comes down…
(from “Youth and Age”, George Gordon, Lord Byron)

In the pilgrimage of our lives, there comes a time when spirituality seems to have died, where the vastness of the universe seems empty of the God who made it, when God seems to have left us. This feeling of disconnection from God is known as a spiritual dryness or desert, a wilderness experience, a dark night of the soul, a time of crisis and distress. How can we cope, and find water in our desert?

Continue reading “Coping with Spiritual Dryness”

“Welcome Me As I Am”

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Just a short post today! I’d like to introduce my readers to a website I’ve just found, called “Welcome Me as I Am“.

It provides information and training resources for churches and chaplaincies on the subjects of mental illnesses and dementia. There is a free toolkit with resources for discussing mental illness and the church, information about mental health first aid, a guide for dealing with mental distress and some interesting prayers in the mould of Michel Quoist.

It looks excellent, and it’s great to see churches and denominations (Roman Catholic, in this case) engaging with mental ill-health, and offering a genuine welcome to their churches for those who are ill.

They also offer seminars as well as workshops in parishes – I assume they charge for these.

An interesting and useful resource for all churches, not just Roman Catholic ones! Please do visit:

http://www.welcomemeasiam.org.uk/

Stress: Mental Health Awareness Week

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From the 14th to the 20th May is Mental Health Awareness Week, hosted by the Mental Health Foundation and with the theme this year of “Stress: Are we coping?” Started in 2001, Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK aims to raise awareness of mental health and ill-health, and to promote the message of good mental health.

Continue reading “Stress: Mental Health Awareness Week”

Ora et Labora: Work, Prayer & Value

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It’s value judgement time!

Alex is always busy. From 9-5 Alex is at work in the office, and then attends prayer meetings and church outreach events in the evenings. At weekends Alex can be found leading worship and preaching the Gospel.

Jamie isn’t quite so busy. Jamie doesn’t work, receives welfare, and rarely makes it to church events. Jamie spends a lot of time in the house, reading, and praying.

Which of these two people is the most useful in the church, and more generally? In what they do with their time, is Jamie or Alex worth more?

Continue reading “Ora et Labora: Work, Prayer & Value”

Unreliable Witnesses?

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“You are my witnesses,” says the Lord,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am He.” (Isaiah 43:10a)

“You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samar′ia and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8b)

It will soon be Pentecost, the great Christian festival celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ disciples, the power behind the great mission of Christ’s Church, to proclaim the Good News to all creation.

Christ’s followers are his witnesses – people who have seen and experienced his love in their lives, and whose duty and desire is to share that love with others, “for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) They witness by testifying of what they know and have experienced of God, his grace, forgiveness, and love. Both in their words and in their deeds, Christians are to witness to the truth of Christ’s divinity, his sacrifice upon the Cross, and his resurrection – to the love of God made known in Jesus. This isn’t a choice, or a specialist role, but part of what it is to be a Christian (Matt 10:18, 28:19; Mark 13:9; Luke 21:13; Acts 1:8 and more), and the testimony of Christians helps others to believe (John 4:39; 2 Thess 1:10). So, evangelism, bearing witness to Christ, is the duty of all Christians – but what does it mean to testify to the truth of Christ as a mentally ill person?

Continue reading “Unreliable Witnesses?”

Jesus of the Scars

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If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars. 

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

I used to self-harm, and, as a result, have quite a large collection of scars on my arm. All of us, whether we self-harm(ed) or not, have scars on our bodies, and on our minds. They tell the story of our lives – the time we fell in the playground, the time someone hurt us, the time we hurt ourselves, making up a physical picture of who we are, and where we have been. For many self-harmers, the injuries we inflict are signs – in the words of C Blount:

How will you know I’m hurting
If you cannot see my pain?
To wear it on my body
Tells what words cannot explain.

Edward Shillito, the author of “Jesus of the Scars“, was a Free Church minister during the horrors of World War I. From that war, young men returned broken, if they returned at all, with horrific wounds and scars, the treating of which led to the development of plastic surgery. Here, Shillito gives a message to all who are wounded – soldiers, and ordinary people alike: only Christ can bring us comfort.

In the book of Isaiah, the coming Messiah is described as

“a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:3a, 5)

In the New Testament, the torture and death of Jesus is presented as a victory, rather than a defeat, and a glorification rather than the humiliation it was intended to be. Through Christ’s death, the believer is crucified with him (Rom 6:6; Col 3:3) and, like him, is resurrected (Rom 6:5-8; 2 Tim 2:11) so that Christ now lives in the believer (Gal 2:20). The wounds that Shillito writes about (thorn-pricks, hands, side) are the marks of Jesus’ Passion, the marks of his crucifixion and death. Those wounds are the signs of our salvation, signs shown to the Apostles when he first appeared to them after his resurrection (Luke 24:36-44John 20:19-29).

So, when we are in pain, when we are wounded, when all seems dark, we are to remember that Jesus has been there too. He knows grief, sorrow, and agony – all the awfulness that being human can entail – and he, too, is scarred, just as we are. Christian faith is in an eternal wonder that God himself chose to become human, to become just like us, except without our sin, and that he chose to die for us, with all the betrayal and pain that implies. He is the wounded God, for a wounded humanity, a scarred Saviour for a scarred people. His wounds are the balm for ours, and our very woundedness is a sign of our need for him.

Let us, then, hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we have a great High Priest who has gone into the very presence of God—Jesus, the Son of God. Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses. On the contrary, we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin. Let us have confidence, then, and approach God’s throne, where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it. (Heb 4:14-16 GNT)

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Beside the Waters of Rest

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Have you ever been on a retreat? In my previous post on Elijah’s depression in the desert, I talked about the value I find in retreats – formal and informal – as ways of refreshing mind, body, and spirit, before returning to the world once more. Your retreat might be a formal retreat in a place designed for the purpose; or it might be a few days with a friend. It might follow a programme of reflection and worship; or it might be some time doing nothing at all. One thing all retreats have in common is that they are a time out, a time away from our normal lives, a time to recover, and perhaps to discover more about ourselves, and our faith.

Continue reading “Beside the Waters of Rest”

6 Ways to be a Welcoming Church for People with Mental Illnesses

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This week, 1 in 6 people experienced mental ill-health. During this year, 1 in 4 people will be mentally unwell. [1] There are people with mental health problems all around us, among people we know, and those we don’t, in our workplaces, and in our places of worship. Mental health issues often come with a burden of stigma alongside the illness, and the employment rates for people with mental illnesses are low – only 45.5% of people with long-term depression or anxiety are in work, and only 26.2% of people with mental illness or phobias are currently working. [2] People with mental illnesses disproportionately suffer from social isolation, poor housing, unemployment and poverty [3] as a result of the stigma attached to mental illness.

As Christians, we follow a God who found his followers not among the rich, but among the poor; among outcasts, not the ‘respectable’; and who affirmed the equality of all believers as his friends, and his children. The Bible affirms that all have sinned (Rom 3:23) and all are offered salvation (Rom 10:12-13). Just as we all are equal before salvation, we are all equal afterwards – regardless of mental illness or wellness, disability or ability, or anything else about us, for:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

As Christians, we seek to bring God’s lost children home to faith in him, and to encourage and build one another up (1 Thess 5:11) as we seek to follow Christ, day by day. Many Christians (and seekers) from marginalised groups have felt turned away, rather than welcomed by the Church, including people with mental health problems. These are my five suggestions as to how we, as a Church, can be more welcoming to people with mental illnesses, both those who are new to us, and those who are within us. I’ve put them together under the acronym PSALTR – Pray, Share, Ask, Learn, Talk and Relax.

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Pray

When we pray, how often do we include people with mental health problems in our prayers?

In my church, each service includes a time of intercessions, under the rough headings of “church”, “world”, “nation”, “region”, “those who are ill” and “those who have died”. In the last two sections, we will often pray generally for people who are ill, or who have recently died (and/or their loved ones) as well as for people whose names are on our church prayer list.

Mental illness is often hidden, and people may not wish to be in a named prayer list if they are suffering. One way to increase the visibility of mental ill-health, and to signal that the Church sees this as an illness like any other, is to pray regularly for people with mental illnesses and those who care for them. Like all people who are unwell, mentally ill people stand in need of prayer, and naming mental ill-health in among our prayers for those with the ‘flu, with heart problems or other illnesses is one way to lessen stigma. Be careful, however, with language – do not give the impression that mentally ill people are being punished, are afflicted with demons, or are different to other ill people, which would have quite the opposite effect!

The formal prayers of the Church are one way in which we can support those around us who are ill, but not all of us lead intercessions. We do all pray, however, and offering (not demanding) to pray for those who we know to be mentally unwell is good, as is asking for prayer when we ourselves are not mentally well.

Share

Church should be a place where we can share our troubles in life and receive the support of others. I recall being startled once, when I mentioned I was having a bout of sciatica, when lots of my church friends rushed up to pray for me all at once! That was lovely – and it would be great to get to a point where we could reveal we are struggling with depression or anxiety as easily as that, and receive prayer as readily as that.

One way to do that is to be open ourselves. While there’s no need to go telling everyone the instant I meet them that I have a mental illness, many people in my church know that I have bipolar disorder. One way of combating stigma is that openness – I have no idea what stereotypes people may have had about bipolar people, but I do know that stereotypes get broken down by getting to know the people behind the stereotype. As a result of my being open, I have had a number of people inside and outside my church who are mentally ill come to talk to me, feeling that they too can be open about their health.

Specifically when it comes to church leaders and preachers, it is more helpful than you know if you share any struggles you’ve had with your mental health, or even just mention it sometimes. Statistics from the US (which are borne out in my own experience in the UK) show that mental illness is a taboo topic in the pulpit, with 66% of pastors speaking about it once a year, rarely, or never.

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I’m not suggesting that mental illness should be mentioned in every sermon, or shoehorned into sermons where it isn’t appropriate, but a powerful way of acknowledging that mental illness is an illness like any other, quite common, and not shameful, is to mention it regularly. A particularly powerful weapon against stigma is if a church leader can talk about their own experiences of mental ill-health, if they’ve had them. Clergy are disproportionately likely to suffer from mental ill-health [3] and, dare I say it, I’ve found that being open about not being well is a good way to maintain good mental health. That said, not all clergy may want to be open, and there may be fewer clergy able to talk about their own experiences of mental ill-health because, certainly in my own church, people with mental illnesses are less likely to be ordained. (I’d like to see that reconsidered, but that’s for another post).

Nevertheless, openness from us as individuals is one way to normalise mental illness, to express it for what it is – a family of common illnesses, and nothing to be ashamed of. The support of church leaders in talking about mental ill-health is an important one, but so is that of the rest of us.

Ask

As with all disabilities, we go wrong when we make assumptions. We may think that Mrs Smith won’t want anyone else to know she has depression, or that Mrs Jones’ schizophrenia means she would find it too hard to be a Sunday School volunteer, but we won’t know unless we ask them. All of us have some stereotypes in our heads, which we may not even be aware of, but everyone is different, ill or well, and we need to ask rather than make assumptions about what people need, or can do. One constant sadness for many people who are mentally ill is that theirs is a “no casserole” illness. Where people will organise food, or shopping for someone who has broken a leg, they don’t think to ask if someone with depression would like the same. Likewise, people often forget to ask if someone who is mentally ill would like to be added to the church prayer list, or reach out to ask if they’d like to be included on a church trip. These are all ways to help support one another – if that is what the person wants. So ask!

In a wider sense, asking how people are and listening to what they say are important. Asking, for example, how someone who is a carer is doing, if they are looking after themselves, or gently asking a widow how she is doing, not just after her husband has died but for a long time afterwards might be a lifeline to someone. We should aim for a cultural change, so that we can be open with one another about ways in which we are suffering, able to talk about our problems and both offer and accept help.

Learn

If someone tells you they have schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, or any of the mental illnesses, what do you think? As I mentioned above, we all have stereotypes in our heads which can affect what we think someone who is mentally ill feels, thinks, or can do. So, if someone tells you they have a mental illness, learn about it. Bear in mind that all illness is a spectrum, so take diagnostic criteria as a general guide, not something set in stone. Someone currently in a manic episode of Bipolar I, for example, would present very differently from me, who has been “recovered” from Bipolar II for a decade. With that in mind, though, there are many good websites around, like MIND, the NHS website, or the Royal College of Psychiatrists which give good, general information about mental illnesses. The priority, though, is to listen to the person who told you about their illness, to learn how their illness affects them, rather than assuming what it must be like or consist of. Knowledge is power – and certainly knowledge from the person and/or professional bodies beats whatever detritus from TV and films may have got into our heads!

Talk

Time to Talk, the UK’s national stigma-busting day, has a good title. It is when we talk about mental ill-health that we can dismantle stereotypes and reduce stigma. Consider the change in how we talk about cancer – at one time, that was heavily stigmatised, and people would avoid naming it or talking about it. Now, people with cancer feel free to talk about their illnesses and receive support from others. We can hope for the same for mental ill-health – but to do that, we all must talk about it, making our churches places where people are comfortable talking about their illnesses, and where everyone else is happy to support them back to health.

The ways in which we can do that are really covered above: openness, mentions in services and sermons, asking people how they are, learning about mental illness, and sharing our struggles with one another. Being a loving and open community, in other words.

Relax

Finally, relax. Remember that even people with the most stigmatised disorders are still people, still children of the same heavenly Father. One of the most damaging stereotypes of mentally ill people is that we are violent – when actually, those with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of violence. Sometimes, churches can be frightened of people who are very obviously unwell, and I’ve heard of people being asked to leave, and told not to return because of it. If someone is seriously unwell, the police have the power to detain people under section until they can be assessed by a medical professional. If someone is hurting themselves, trying to hurt others, or otherwise terrifying you, call them.

If, however, someone’s behaviour is odd, but not harmful, then that is the time to relax. Sometimes, mental illness makes people behave in odd ways, dress strangely, or just be a little strange in services. Understand that this isn’t deliberate, but a part of illness, and adapt to it – just as we adapt to children, people with dementia, and people with all sorts of disabilities.

We are all different, but we are all one body through Christ. That’s something I always try to keep in mind.

So, to recap, my 6 ways to be welcoming are: Pray for each other and for all mentally ill people; Share our own struggles, especially if we can do so in church leadership; Ask if people would like help and how they are doing; Learn about mental illnesses and how they affect the individuals we know; Talk about mental illness to reduce stigma and, finally, Relax in the presence of people who are different.

May we see more and more mental health-friendly churches!

References

[1] Mental Health Foundation Statistics
[2] TUC, Mental Health and Employment, 2017 (https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Mental_Health_and_Employment.pdf)
[3] http://www.brin.ac.uk/2011/mental-health-of-clergy/

Resources