When church buildings closed their doors, headlines made it sound as though religious and faith communities were going to halt proceedings. But during Mental Health Awareness Week I’m writing this blog to let you know how Christianity and my extensive Faith community has helped my through one of the strangest times any of us have seen.
I have been struggling with my mental health for all sorts of reasons and I’ve had to dial up the coping strategies to ensure I don’t slide down into the darkness.
For me, mindfulness and distraction are helpful. Mindfulness is a form of meditation where you focus on the here and now, ensuring your attention isn’t distracted by dwelling in the past or worrying about the future. I use crafting to distract myself from distressing thoughts, knitting is my favourite hobby at the moment!
Routine is vital for my mental health and I think the vast majority of us have had our routines jolted out from under us without our consent. I’ve heard lots of people struggling with weekdays and weekends feeling the same. I’ve been involved in producing church services that we can watch online as though we’re going to church at the same time each Sunday. Doing this has given me some purpose. We’ve also have Zoom-coffee after the service to catch up with friends afterwards. Staying connected has been really important for my mental health.
With church services online, people who didn’t attend church before lockdown can now easily access everything that‘s going on. This is a way anyone can separate weekdays from weekends if they choose. However, it’s also fantastic for those who’re working at the weekend, they can now access their church service any time during the week, when it suits them!
A recent Tearfund study revealed that more people than ever are turning to prayer. My husband and I pray together every night before bed; we find out from each other whether we have felt love from each other that day, ask for prayer requests and then pray, include prayers of thanks and pray for each other. This continued routine has helped me. Prayer helps me because it keeps me connected to what’s important. Sitting with my husband, even if it’s just for 5 minutes in the evening and focusing on a few simple things helps me to see what my priorities are.
Alpha is a course that introduces people to the basics of the Christian faith. Just like every other area of life, Alpha has moved online and more people than ever are engaging with Alpha online! Alpha addresses the big questions and gives an opportunity to address the meaning of life. People are being give more time to think and they’re wanting answers.
Some people struggling with the idea of God “allowing” this pandemic to happen but the God I believe in gave human being free-will and unfortunately this means we make mistakes. This pandemic is a man-made disaster and while God is omnipotent, he could stop it, this would completely negate the point of free-will. Instead, God has provided himself as a source, for us to rely on in times of need. I know, no matter how desperate I feel, if I rely on my relationship with God, I will get through.
My faith is of central importance to my life and it always has been; I don’t know what it’s like not to believe in an all loving God I can turn to at anytime and to be part of a community of fellow believers.
Not many years ago, going to church was the thing everyone did on a Sunday, on the day of rest, whole families would attend church together as part of their weekly routine. Society has changed a lot, with shops opening on Sunday and many sporting activities happening on Sundays, there are many reasons why the habitual practice of going to church has changed. But does that mean that church no longer has any relevance?
British culture has changed such that people are encouraged to express their individuality, instead of following what their family has done for generations. People, now more than ever, think about what’s right for them personally, rather than fitting in with what everyone else does.
I see many people for whom religion just isn’t on their agenda, they live their life quite happily and don’t see any reason to show any interest in the church or what they have to offer.
Many people have actively been put off church by the things people do “in the name of religion”. Interpreting the Bible in an unhelpful manner has made people think Christians are judgmental do-gooders who do not welcome difference or anyone who’s struggling.
So we have people who have been hurt by the church and we have people who are indifferent – how is the church relevant to either of these groups of people?
When I was young, I went with my family to church, I thought I was an ok Christian – I didn’t think I was anything special but I moved through life being as good-a-person as I could be and I thought that was ok. I knew I sometimes did things that weren’t great, I might have told a fib here and there but I wasn’t a terrible person.
When I went away to uni, I continued going to church, it was what I’d always done, I saw no reason to stop. But it was here that I woke up to what being a Christian really meant. It suddenly hit me was that I was a serial sinner, I committed sins daily even hourly, but I also learnt that that’s ok, God forgives me even before I sin and when I ask for forgiveness, God’s grace is abundant.
But, why am I talking about is sin?! I hear you ask. I’m not that terrible am I?! I’ve not murdered anyone or stolen anything?! The sorts of sins I commit include being quick to anger, being slow to say sorry, letting my emotions dictate how I react to situations, not being compassionate towards people and judging people before I know their story. At the moment something I’m struggling with is that I’m being quite negative at work, I try not to be, I’m generally a positive person, trying to see silver-linings etc but just now I’m letting a negative situation get the better of me – this is not how God made me to be. Maybe other people wouldn’t call these sins but for me, I find it easier to lump everything together otherwise I get unnecessarily caught in grading or rating the level of “not great” I’m being.
For me, it is these things that brings me closer to God, they remind me I am human, they humble me, they remind me I can’t do anything without God’s strength and being mindful of my shortfalls keep me striving to be a better person. Yes, I’m sure there are non-Christians out there who try to be good people but I strive to be more Christ like, the bar is high – I will fail but this does not stop me trying.
Jesus loved the sick, he prioritised spending time with criminals – no matter what sin people had committed, Jesus wanted to love them, to accept them and to bring them into his fold. Absolute unconditional love and compassion is not something many people experience – this is what Jesus has on offer.
I’m not one for writing hard hitting challenging blogs as I’m naturally a people pleaser, I don’t like upsetting people, I like to gently present a idea for people to think about but I feel this subject needs a more direct approach. I ask you this – why do you do anything?
Why do you get up in the morning? To go to work? To put breakfast on the table for your family? Because you feel you should?
So why do you do that? Why do you go to work? Why do you prepare meals for your family? Why do feel you should?
Keep asking “why” until you strip your life back to find what you fundamentally believe the point of your life is. Why are you on this earth? What, ultimately, gives you meaning and purpose?
I believe God has put me on this earth to serve him and other people, I believe I am meant to use the skills God has given me to care for other people, to show them love and compassion, and to improve the quality of their lives.
Most of my blogs are about mental health because illness has dominated my life and I believe by sharing my experience and the things I’ve learnt I might help other people, whether it’s by helping people feel less alone or by educating and raising awareness in order to decrease stigma and discrimination.
The connection between my faith and my mental health recovery is simple – I could not have recovered without my faith. There was a point in my recovery where I had to make a conscious decision to take my illness out of the centre of my life. I decided I did not want it to define me. By removing my illness from the centre, I had to replace it with something, for me, this something was God. Other people may want to fill that hole with family, friends or work but in my experience (as fantastic as they are) these things cannot be as rock solid and reliable as God.
While going through trialing times, such as illness, bereavement or relationship breakdown, we all need people we can rely on. As an introvert, I struggle to make friends and it takes me a long time to open up to people. Some people are fortunate enough to have strong groups of friends either purely socially or via a hobby who they can rely on to be there through thick and thin. But for me, it’s my Church community who offer love and acceptance no matter what I’m going through. I don’t need to blurt out my deepest darkest secrets for people to care, to offer words of comfort or to pray with me.
I have been really fortunate that various music groups that I’ve belonged to have been understanding when I’ve been unwell. For example, for a period of time I could only manage half rehearsals but I was still accepted and my participation (no matter how little or unreliable it was) and my talent was appreciated. But with a social group or hobby, there’s an expectation, some condition on you belonging. This situation here was great but there was some expectation that if I was to come along, I would play the saxophone, at least some of the time!
But church goes the extra mile; there are absolutely no conditions placed on being part of a church. There have been times I’ve gone to church, week after week, sat at the back and not spoken to anyone – this was what I wanted and needed at the time. It’s totally up to the individual how much you take part in the church community.
People find God in different place, for example, within themselves or in nature and although I agree God is everywhere and people will feel nourished by different environments, God has designed us to be in community and for me, church is not about some old (or new) building, it’s about a community of people, a loving, accepting community of people.
Unfortunately, there are groups of people who call themselves Christians who are judgmental and expect people to conform to a set of rules in order to be accepted into a church but this is not what Christianity is about. My church is a safe and supportive environment where my relationships with Jesus Christ can grow.
So, if you’ve made it to the end of the blog…
If you’ve been hurt by people acting “in the name of religion”, I’m really sorry. Please remember humans get it wrong. The God I know is not judgmental, he is infinitely gracious and longs to have a relationship with you.
If you’re “meh” about religion, might it be worth giving it a go? What have you got to lose?!
I hope you can excuse a little self indulgence while I digest what just happened… Some of you will have seen me on The Big Questions (TBQ) on BBC1 today debating the subject “Is religion good for your mental health”. If you missed it, you can catch it on iPlayer here. It was my 2nd experience of live TV, it’s kinda fun being treated like an important person for a couple of hours. I was asked if I enjoyed it… I think I can certainly say it was an experience but, enjoy? I’m not sure!
In case you don’t know me, in a nutshell, I woulnd’t be alive right now if it were not for my faith. I don’t always tak about my faith, for more details see here. But there’s no escaping it now – live on BBC1 I stated that I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
To be honest, right now I feel overwhelmed with sadness that people claim to be working in the name of God, express hatred towards other human beings. I have been brought up to love everyone, I don’t think this was part of my “religious upbringing” or it’s just a descent thing to do. I do not judge people, it is not my place – I treat others as I would like to be treated.
First things first, I’m not out to convert anyone – I share my religious views, if you don’t share them, please do not dismiss me, please do not label me as “judgmental” or assume I hold views that you haven’t asked me about. I share my experiences in case they will help other people.
If someone doesn’t want to experience a personal relationship for God, I’m not going to force it on them. If, however, you’re looking for one and all you hear is “you’re a bad person”, “you’re sinful”, “you’re going to hell”, “you need change before you’re accepted” – this is fundamentally wrong. These words are human in origin, this is not what God says. If you’ve had a bad experience of religion, long story short, it’s likely to have been the human element (i.e. other human’s telling you what you should think or how you should behave) that messed it up, not God.
My experience of God is simple – he loves me for who I am, just the way I am, if I make a mistake he has forgiven me before I do it. He invites me into a personal, loving, relationship with him. As a Anglican Christian, I am fortunate that with my faith comes a loving community – this is not everyone’s experience of Christianity and I feel pretty angry about that.
Predictably, there were people on TBQ who had bad experiences with religion and, rightfully so, wanted to get their voice heard. There were also people who weren’t bothered by religion who didn’t think it was something they needed in order to be healthy. As I have previously found, people who feel they have been wronged have a very loud voice. I find myself wondering what people want when they shout about a bad experience, often an answer to this question is not forthcoming. The need to be heard is powerful but often people don’t think they have been heard unless you agree with them.
I do not dismiss other people’s experiences, I find it hurtful and disrespectful when my experience is disregarded or laughed at. Although I felt respected by all staff working on the production, I was surprised at the “guests” and members of public before and after the debate. A debate is a forum where opposing arguments can be put forward – perhaps I was expecting people to actually listen respectfully to each other but this wasn’t what people wanted to do. People spoke over each other and took the topic off tangent to make unconnected points.
In summary, am I glad I agreed to go on TBQ? On balance, yes but there’s no way this subject could be fully explored in such a short time or with people who just want to get their point across without fully listening to other people.
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