Heavenly Father, may your Word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher
and your glory our chief concern.
Revd Caroline Risdon, Assistant Priest 14 October 2018
Many of you will have noticed that Wednesday marked World Mental Health Day. This is a day and a topic very close to my heart because I was for many years a social worker with people over 60 who lived with mental illness.
It is hard for me to put into words the gratitude I feel towards the people, my former clients, who allowed me to travel alongside them at such awful, dramatic and traumatic times in their lives. There’s no good time to have a social worker in your life; no good time to be known and overseen by a statutory service.
And I witnessed a lot - a gentleman who had put himself to bed, seemingly to await the relief of death, due to the vitriolic and punitive voices he heard; a lady who felt sorry for me because I wasn’t connected to ‘the machine’ - a system which kept her in touch with a wide variety of interesting people and gave her great company. I have seen people starve themselves to the point of near death because they believe they have caused the worldwide HIV/AIDS pandemic; I have heard the most outrageous, witty and truthful poetry written by people during their manic phases; I have sat with people who couldn’t remember me even though I’d been with them for four years.
Mental illness affects 1 in 4 adults in their lifetime. As a statistic, 1 in 4 doesn’t sound so bad - we can distance ourselves from it a bit - place ourselves in the 75% who won’t experience mental distress. But 1 in 4 is not only a significant number, it is a close number, an intimate number. There are four people in my immediate family - my mum, my dad, my sister and me. Four. So the likelihood is that one of us will in our lifetimes experience mental illness. Very close indeed.
And it doesn’t look much better for the children of our society either. 1 in 10 children will experience a mental health problem during their childhood. When we look upon our precious church children as they join us for Communion later, how can we bear to think that some of them will know such difficulty and distress before even the age of 18?
I believe that this is such a prevalent issue in our time because we do not attend to our well-being. We live with chronic stress; we are always on various media devices; we never switch off; we pile such pressure on our children and teenagers that they buckle under the weight of it. The pace of life is about to outrun us. And perhaps it ought to outrun us and leave us behind. Because somewhere along the way, we have gotten our priorities wrong. We have become unbalanced. We expend so much energy chasing things we believe to be essential only, ultimately, to find them empty of the promise.
And in this way we are like the rich man in the gospel story. He poses the wrong question to Jesus - what must I do to gain eternal life? The answer is - nothing - for there is nothing you can do in your own power to earn yourself eternal life. The story is not about wealth or possessions. It is about being receptive. Jesus knows that this man has many possessions and is used to using his wealth to determine his own life. It is only by getting rid of all of his wealth, that he will be reduced to a situation of need and dependence. And only then will he have to opportunity to be receptive to the action of God in his life. His treasure will no longer be in his ‘stuff’ but in God.
Are we not all this rich man? Determined to make our own way and to be totally in command of our lives. We push away vulnerability as though it is a weakness, as though it is something to be ashamed of. But vulnerability, relying on others, asking for help, these are not signs of weakness but of self-awareness and self-acceptance.
What are any of us really seeking if not acceptance? Accepting ourselves as children of God; accepting ourselves for who we are and, crucially, who we are not. Like the rich man, we misunderstand. We do not have to seek after God; God is with us. We do not have to chase after God trying to prove that we can change, that we can be acceptable. God created us. God knows and loves us more deeply than we can possibly imagine. We are already enough. So rather than striving for wealth, possessions and control, we are to strive to lead lives of service to others and to receive from God.
Among all the publicity around World Mental health day, there was information on how to maintain your mental well-being:
• Eat and drink well;
• Rest properly;
• Exercise a bit;
• Make and maintain close relationships;
• Talk to the people dearest to you;
• Do something you’re good at and enjoy;
• Look after someone or something else.
Some may say these are characteristics of leading a simple life. They are not simple; but fundamental and foundational to a healthy life. And they are the good gifts God bestows upon us. The gifts of life, of friends and family; of beauty around us; of prayer and worship; of the community of our Church.
We all know that being Christian doesn’t make us perfect. Nor does it prevent us for experiencing serious and debilitating illness. Being well is not merely the absence of symptoms, it is finding contentment, enjoyment, stability where you are. And wherever you are; know that you are not alone; God is with each of us; God’s people are also with us.
In God’s care we find that even though we may not be cured, we can be well. We can turn and find life again.