Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be giving you a sneak peek of Rachael’s upcoming book “Learning to Breathe” and giving away one copy a week! To enter, all you need to do is publicly share one of the #LearningtoBreathe blog posts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and comment on our post that you’ve done it! Winners will be picked at random and prizes sent out after the 16th August.

The friendship I received when I was at my darkest, was like that we see in the story of the paralysed man who was lowered through the roof to Jesus in Mark 2. These men were so desperate to bring their friend into contact with the healing power and presence of Jesus that in the heat of the Capernaum day they dug through someone’s roof to beat the crowds and sit at Jesus’ feet. It was an astonishing act of friendship; not least because I doubt the owner of the house was particularly enamoured with them in the aftermath. And while we probably won’t have to dig through ceilings for our friends, by its very nature true friendship breaks down stigma.

John Swinton and Jean Vanier write in Mental Health: Inclusive church resource: ‘The call of Jesus is to hear the cries for love and to move forwards in friendship and in perseverant love; a mode of friendship which destroys stigma and opens up space for all of us to be fully human even in the midst of our wildest storms.’

This is fierce friendship – it’s not for the faint-hearted – but it was demonstrated to me by those who sat with me during those dark days and was modelled by Jesus during his earthly life. The way in which he offered friendship was radical; it focused not on someone’s outward appearance, nor even on what Jesus may or may not have had in common with that person, but on the individual’s own unique personhood. It reached across the social boundaries of the day, from the Samaritan woman in John 4.7 to Zacchaeus in Luke 19.2. As the Church, friendship is our greatest weapon against the stigma of mental illness, just as it was a weapon against the stigma of leprosy in Jesus’ lifetime.

My friends offered me this friendship in a myriad of ways: praying with me, helping to ground me during panic attacks, forcing me to bed when I’d worked myself into a sleepless hysteria, and they wouldn’t let me hide behind the pretence that this wasn’t mental illness. They faced it and acknowledged it, which in turn allowed me to do the same.

So often within the Church, we shy away from caring for those in our midst who have mental health problems because we don’t want to step on the professionals’ toes. Offering friendship, however, is exactly the role of the Church, enabling people on the fringes of society to feel they are welcome and that they belong, regardless of what their lives look like. Sometimes we don’t make it the safe place it is meant to be.

Enabling our churches to become truly safe places extends way beyond making them physically accessible to making them emotionally accessible. To people at their weakest our songs might only proclaim victory and power, our sermons may make no reference to emotion. It’s not about abandoning our practices and donning sackcloth and ashes for every service, but about making space for those who may not be able to relate to God in the same way that we do. We want to enable people to come into our churches as they are and to be transformed by Jesus – not by church culture.

©Rachael Newham, Learning to Breathe, 2018, SPCK. Reprinted with permission.

If you’d like to pre-order Rachael’s book, you can find a list of retailers over at https://rachaelnewham.com/learning-to-breathe/