10As he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens break open and the Spirit descend on him, like a dove. 11And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I take delight.’
Mark 1: 10-11 – Revised English Bible
1The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to announce good news to the humble, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to those in prison; 2to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favour…
Isaiah 61: 1-2 – Revised English Bible
36What does anyone gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his life?
Mark 8: 36 – Revised English Bible
Scarcely a day goes by without my reading about the heavy toll on the nation’s mental health. We shouldn’t be surprised that many are suffering from stress and anxiety after a year of lockdown at various levels and with our Press and Media uniformly overflowing with dire warnings of Third Waves, monstrous global death tolls and the risk of variants that will be resistant to the vaccines and which will set us back to square one.
Christians are (or should be!) in a good place to withstand this onslaught. I would like to try to explain why I think this, for those new readers (Welcome! I’m delighted to have you!) who may be struggling to find a faith. But also for those with a faith but who are fighting for their mental well-being:
- The modern world is more focused on the individual than at any time in history, but as human beings, we’re not meant to live in isolation. Attending church if we’ve never done so before can be challenging at the best of times and during times of COVID, even more so. But this doesn’t mean that we have to cut ourselves off from God. Prayers can help to make us less selfish and make us feel part of something larger. We all come across plenty of people who are struggling in life and if we listen to friends, they’ll sometimes mention those they know who are feeling challenged. If we set aside a time of day (if we’re very busy, it can even be in the shower or whilst walking to the bus station or doing daily chores) we can simply offer up their names and what we know about them to God, even if we’ve never met them ourselves. Keeping a book for their names will help. We don’t need to be able to pray fluently or professionally; we don’t need to kneel or be in silence; if we simply hold the person or their name in our mind, God can do the rest. If you let those you’re praying for know that you’re praying for them, that can help them, too.
- If you struggle with prayer, try to use music to help. Personally, I find the music of the Taizé religious community in France enormously helpful as a background to prayer. You may even find that the tunes stick in your head and come to mind subconsciously, so you can find yourself praying at odd moments, when you hadn’t even intended to. Type ‘Songs of the Taizé Community’ into your browser; there’s a great deal on youtube. Feast on it!
- Have a go at reflecting theologically. Consider the issues in your life and try to reflect on what a God who wants the best for you and for all his creatures might want to say to you about the issues or problems on your mind. For this to work, you must try not to rush it; it may take many days or weeks before a thought comes to you that helps; the process is ‘tuning you in’ to God’s thoughts and eventually it may help you to look upon things more positively. Walks can be a particularly productive time; try to think about what you see; a single butterfly or bird can improve your mood; the antics of a passing dog can make you smile, if you’ll let it.
- Many of us are very hard on ourselves. Having less contact with other people may leave us listening too closely to our own doubts, fears and self-criticism. When we’re not feeling positive, we need to focus on the fact that God loves us, however shocking our behaviour, and whatever we might have done that we regret and which we might consider to be unforgiveable. If we ask for forgiveness, God will give it to us.
- Give thanks. We all have something to give thanks for and it can help to take us out of ourselves. If we think we have nothing to be thankful for, then we’ve failed to grasp how much better our lives are, despite tragedy etc, than many others in our world and almost everyone who lived in a previous generation. And if you can’t get your head around this, give thanks for nature; we’re coming up to a time of year when nature calls out God’s love; today is ‘Rogation Sunday’ the traditional time for thinking about nature and giving thanks for its beauty and its bounty. If you live in a city, try to get out into the countryside; it will almost certainly refresh you.
- Everyone, without exception, needs affirmation. If we find something nice to say about others, we may be surprised at how they respond in kind. See the passage from Mark 1 that I’ve quoted above; even Jesus needed affirmation!
- Christianity is unique, in that God came to earth in the person of Jesus, to be with us and share the sufferings of this life. God is not remote; he understands and suffers with us. He’s there, even if we can’t detect his presence.
- When Jesus first speaks in the synagogue, he reads the above quotation from Isaiah 61. If you’re not in a good place, if you feel miserable, downhearted, and not worthy he came precisely for you!
- Christianity teaches forgiveness. We may be useless at it, but we should try. If we can understand, even if not forgive, it helps to avoid being consumed by desire for revenge, which is very self-destructive.
- Every human being is vulnerable, even if we can’t see it. If we accept this, it can help to make us more tolerant. The ability to embrace our own vulnerability is critical to our well-being. Giles Fraser has written this marvellous reflection:
“The narcissist’s hell is the ultimate locked-in syndrome because vulnerability is the way we are porous to others and they are porous to us; in other words, vulnerability is the way we are open to love.” (from ‘Chosen’, published April 2021 by Allen Lane)
- Christianity teaches us that we’re not all-knowledgeable. Acceptance that we don’t know everything is good for our health. Lockdown is insane, partly because it suggests that we’re divinely omniscient; it’s the ultimate arrogance to suggest we’re in control of everything!
- Christianity encourages us to see things in perspective; the purpose of life is not to accumulate wealth and possessions, see the above quotation from Mark 8. We all need to try to learn how to focus our lives more on relationships and less on money, power and things, which are ultimately empty.
I could add to this list, but this post is plenty long enough already!
Heavenly Father, we ask you to help us to listen out for your voice. Teach us to bring you into our daily lives, and we ask you to breathe your love and forgiveness into us at this most challenging time. Amen