Monthly Archives: April 2017

Lessons from the Bear Hunt

It’s been buzzing around my head this week like an annoying fly.

Michael Rosen’s famous words from the story “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt

“We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!”

It got me thinking about our attitude towards mental illness and times when we’re struggling.

We’re designed to try to avoid pain; a hand that jumps away from a hot saucepan for example.

The problem is, when we do this with our mental health we can end up building a life around avoiding things that might hurt us, or not facing up to difficult situations.

We might avoid situations that make us feel anxious, places that hold bad memories, we might lock all of our negative experiences and feelings into a box so that we can ignore them. And to a certain extent, we have to work out ways to manage difficult feelings so we can get through the day; but eventually, they need to be faced.

And that’s where the old children’s rhyme comes in.

We can’t gloss over our pain.

We can’t lay beneath our pain.

We have to go through it.

What don’t have to do, is go through it alone.

Writer Dan Allender writes:

“Ignoring our emotions is turning our back on reality; listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God.”

And we see this in Isaiah 43 as it promises:

But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”

Whatever we face, whether fears of the future or shadows from the past, we aren’t alone because Jesus has walked through our human life and the Spirit has been promised to be our comfort.

We go through it, not with a promise of no pain, but with a promise of God’s presence and everlasting comfort.

Moreover, we have the Church, God’s people to travel through life with; in both the good and the bad.

We can’t go over it,

We can’t go under it

We have to go through it.

But much like the family in the story, we don’t have to go through it alone.

Grief and Mental Health

In the past week, Prince Harry opened up about the effect his grief at the death of Diana, Princess of Wales as a part of the Heads Together initiative with the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall.

Grief and mental health are inextricably linked; one can spark the other, they can coexist  in an uncomfortable alliance.

Grief, in and of itself however, is not a mental illness. It’s our natural response to loss; whether that be the loss of a loved one, a place or a relationship.

There is hope, in grief. Grief is designed to weave its way into your life, to change you- mental health issues like depression are designed to destroy life.

Kay Redfield Jamieson writes:

Grief said C.S. Lewis is like “a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” This is so. The lessons that come from grief come from its unexpected moves, from its shifting views of what had gone before and what is yet to come.

The similarities between grief and depression are obvious; tearfulness, trouble sleeping, inability to concentrate.

The difference is grief has a path – and depression has a rampage – and whilst every persons grief is going to look different, there is no set timeline and no set course that it will run, many subscribe that at some point, in some order a person will experience five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

When grief mutates into depression; there is no acceptance, no new life being forged, no space made for what has been lost.

Time is not a heal-all, but it does allow us to reshape our lives to accommodate what has been lost.

What both grief and mental illnesses need are space and time. Space to accept what is happening and time; for loved ones and listening ears.

For more information on places to access support when you’re grieving, check out https://www.careforthefamily.org.uk/family-life/bereavement-support/supporting-bereaved-people/bereavement-and-the-church. 

Easter Sunday – Hope Rises

They were at the end of themselves. Their one hope had died. And their journey along the road to Emmaus was a grief-laden trip full of questions, doubt and pain.

“We had hoped” are surely some of the saddest words in the cannon. That they had pinned their hopes and futures on something seemingly fleeting.

As Packer writes:

“The heartbreaking perplexity of God-given hopes apparently wrecked by God-ordained circumstances is a reality for many Christians today, and will be the experience of more tomorrow – just as it was for Joseph, and for the Emmaus disciples.”

And yet.

On their darkest journey came a new beginning – for them and for us.

Jesus did not appear to them in a flash of lightning and a blaze of glory.

He appeared in the same way he had spent much of his ministry. Opening the scriptures and walking alongside friends. He allowed Cleopas to open his heart and his pain and as Jesus broke bread with them and shared with them, they found who had they had been grieving.

“I am convinced that when we bring our griefs and sorrows within the story of God’s own grief and sorrow, and allow them to be held there, God is able to bring healing to us ans new possibilities to our lives.  ”

Easter tells us that God loves us enough not just to enter our story and walk in our shoes, but that He is greater than the pain of death. Easter tells us that Jesus did not just come to be our friend, He came to defeat death as our King.

Jesus’ crucifixion did not just enter into our pain, it defeated it. And with His defeat of death comes a new, undying hope.

The loss of hope is not the end of the story, because we are Easter people, we live the story that Jesus lived and so we can grasp His hope.

Cleopas and his friend did not just encounter the risen Lord Jesus, they encountered the resurrection of their hope that dawn always follows the night, however long it may be, and that dawn will one day rule.

Even resurrection was not the end of the story, but it’s the promise of the future in the flesh. Jesus’ resurrection points us to the promise of Revelation 21:4 in the MSG

“They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new.”

Whatever today and tomorrow brings, whether it be joy or tears or the glorious muddy mixture of both, we can hold fast to the knowledge that Jesus walked before us, that He beat death and that He will come again to make all things new.

We are an Easter people.

Holy Saturday – Hope Silent

I was reading this blog: http://holdthisspace.org.au/ when I came across this poem and it got me thinking…

They call this day Holy Saturday

when hope has died

when God is dead and buried.

They call this day holy

because we finally understand

what it is to be human

and what it is to be divine.

They call this day holy

because today we can finally believe

that God knows

intimately

and in the very depth of God’s being,

the world’s

grief

fragility

and fear.

There is nothing that we go through here on earth that cannot be comforted by God.

Today marks the day that the tomb wasn’t empty – but that it homed Jesus.

Jesus descended to the depths – so that we may have the opportunity to enjoy the delights of heaven. The Saturday seems to get lost, consumed by the grief of Friday and resurrection joy of Sunday.

Possibly it is because it isn’t mentioned in scripture.

It is often like this in the rest of life I think. We often remember the most dramatic of days, the happiest – but how often do we remember the days of silence, when everything is wrong but nothing can be done. I don’t know whether it is a good thing that we forget days like these in our own lives – but I think it would be good if we spent a little more time remembering Holy Saturday.

It goes beyond the agony of the cross, even. The day when it was finished – when Jesus was dead – because of our sins. It is a day of silence, it seems.

God does not always speak. Sometimes the silence of God says it all. As I write, I am reminded of Job. Job who lost everything and everyone that mattered to him. Job whose friends were less that useless. Job to whom, God remained silent waiting to speak.

It strikes me that the silence of God is more often that not followed by a presence of God that is so awesome, so mighty that we can do nothing but bow in praise and awe.

A season like this Holy Saturday can seem endless. It’s the state in which we sometimes live our lives. Shelly Rambo writes:

“In the aftermath of trauma, death and life no longer stand in opposition. Instead, death haunts life.”

There is no happy ending to Holy Saturday, the shadows of Jesus’ death keep this day dark without a hope for the resurrection dawn. It’s a mistake to rush beyond today, because it is reflected so often in life.

So take time today to offer your prayers today to a God who, in Jesus has experienced the deepest darkness for our sake.

Good Friday – Hope Shattered

“Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.”

WH Auden

Good Friday is the day hope was shattered and our language cannot adequately describe the end of hope. And it can be tempting to skip over Good Friday in our pursuit of the Sunday morning, but life doesn’t work like that. We cannot skip the dark night to the dawn.

For those who believed that Jesus was the one they were waiting for, the Jewish Messiah who was going to break Roman rule, Jesus’ death was the end of everything they had hoped for.

As Jesus cried “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’) hope shattered.

And when hope shatters, very often words do not offer enough comfort. They are not enough to provide a salve for our wounds, nor stem our tears. What we need is the knowledge that we aren’t going through it alone, that someone is there for us to hold onto.

Nights where hope shatters require lament, not consolation.

As J Todd Billings writes:

“We only fully enter lament when we realise that we’re not just expressing ourselves to a human observer but bringing our burdens before the Lord, the Creator, the Almighty who – in light of our distress – is our Deliverer.”

Good Friday does not just teach us Jesus has been through the deepest anguish, it teaches us that it was done for our sakes.

Jesus’ crucifixion was not just about the death of an innocent man, it’s God’s act of saving grace for us.

Despite all the anguish, it’s Good Friday because it’s us that it saved.

It’s Good Friday, because it’s not the end.

There’s more to come.

Maundy Thursday – Hope Challenged

It was the darkest of nights, tiny pinpricks of stars were scattered overhead as they had done over thirty years before, pointing the wise men to a Bethlehem stable. The time was coming when Jesus would taste the death that those strange birth day gifts were preparing Him for. Jesus was under a weight of pressure and pain that few could endure. He chose to sit at the foot of the Father in prayer. Abba. Daddy, he cried. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’. The Son of God, who a few short days before had ridden into Jerusalem triumphant, now cries out to His Father in unspeakable pain, his sweat tainted with blood. That night, thousands of years ago, Jesus’ heart was breaking.

His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane is a picture of pain that speaks to each of us. It is a picture that speaks particularly to the one in four people who will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives. I am one of those one in four and mental illness has pushed me to seek God in new ways and take comfort in the God who became Immanuel, suffering not only the physical pains of this life, but the anguish and heartbreak of humanity.

The betrayal and the fear, the pain and the of burden despair. It is the kind of pain that begs for escape, a pain that begs for release. It is the cry heard from those suffering from the effects of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, when it is doubtful that the dawn will ever break through such a dark night.

What breaks through that dark night is deeper and more powerful than any theodicy, because God himself enters the story through Jesus.

The person of Jesus is where our hope takes shape, and that whatever challenge our hope faces, Jesus is greater.

World Health Day 2017 – Depression

“This weather is so depressing”

“I’m so depressed about Manchester United losing at the weekend”

Depression, depressed, depressing – they’re all rather overused words. And yet they don’t do justice to what the reality of clinical depression is.

“Sometimes”, says a fellow depressive, “I wish I was in a full body cast, with every bone in my body broken. That’s how I feel anyway.” Sally Brampton, Shoot the Damn Dog. (1)

It is a brilliant description for a terrifying and sometimes life threatening mental illness which affects 1 in 6 people in the UK – and this year its the focus of World Health Day. So often because everyone feels “depressed” at one time or another, it can be all too easy to trivialise clinical depression, easy to brush under the carpet, to instruct the sufferer to “pull themselves together”.

And yet.

Can you imagine what life is like for the person who lives each day desiring death? Where you wake up in the morning exhausted and stagger through the day in the same haze of exhaustion. Where food tastes like sawdust, your eyes struggle to focus and your heart is crushed with a heavy sadness. These are just a few of the symptoms of clinical depression and a diagnosis of depression can be made with five or more of these symptoms and it is vital to see your GP as soon as possible so that you can get the help and support you need.

Depression can suck the life out of people, and drain the energy and compassion from those around the sufferer.

There is, however, hope.

It is a serious illness, but it can be dealt with and helped. It can sound simplistic; but a healthy lifestyle with enough food, water, fresh fruit and vegetables with regular exercise can help to release “feel-good hormones”. Whilst these lifestyle changes don’t necessarily “cure” depression, they can go towards alleviating some of the symptoms.

Talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and psychotherapy can equip people to deal with the things that have happened in their lives and the thought patterns which may have become entrenched.

Personally, what has helped me the most is the love and care of those closest to me. For the times when I have been unable to face another day, or to speak through my tears – and those I loved would hold me close and assure me that I am not alone.

Because that is often the depressive’s worst fear. That people would see the darkness within and run for the hills.

All too often, sufferers of depression push their nearest and dearest away. But in the midst of my own darkness, I found the following words profoundly helpful.

Andrew Solomon writes in his aptly named “The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression”

“Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason.” (2)

Above all, cling to God. When you feel as if He is further than He has even been – hold on. Because He is there and He will always be there. On one of the worst days of my life, I was given these verses to reflect on from Psalm 40:

“I waited patiently for the LORD, he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet upon a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in Him.”

They are verses which have become my prayer and it is my pleasure and privilege to try to put some of the darkness to good use.

I will not say, cannot say that the darkness has gone completely. It hasn’t, sometimes it remains and drains me. But there is hope. Hope because I have learned, over the years to hold on. Hope because there are those who love me. Hope because we have a God who does not let  go. Hope because there is medication which helps to balance the chemicals in my brain which go a little haywire!

My message for World Health Day 2017?

There is hope.

Even when you can’t see it.

Even when everything feels hopeless.

There is hope.

(1) Brampton, S. Shoot the Damn Dog, London: Norton, 2008.

(2) Solomon, A. Noonday Demon, London: Vintage Books, 2002.