‘What one thing do you wish the Church understood about mental health?’ is a question Mat Ray – author of Livability’s Lifting the Lid – has asked people living with ill health. In this article Mat shares his inspiration and hopes for Livability’s new mental health resource for churches.
As I wrote Lifting the Lid, I often returned to the story of the woman that pours extravagant perfume over Jesus. All four of the Biblical gospels tell the story about the woman who comes to see Jesus while he is eating dinner. Depending on the account, she either pours perfume over Jesus, or she weeps and washes his feet with her tears before drying them with her hair.
We never know the full story of this woman – we aren’t sure of her identity and don’t hear her voice, or know what she has done to earn the description ’sinful’. But what we do know is that here is a woman who is desperate to connect with Jesus. Her action is dramatic, wordless and taboo-breaking, as she does the only thing she can think of to reach out to Him.
Watching this dramatic moment unfold, onlookers are quick to condemn her – either the perfume is a waste of money, or she is touching Jesus inappropriately, or both. Her worship is ‘wrong’. And Jesus’ dining companions are Pharisees and His disciples, so they ought to know about these things. But Jesus’ rebuke is not for the woman, but for the religious people, saying “She has done a beautiful thing for me.”
On days when I feel so bad that getting to church and joining in with worship feels impossible, I am encouraged that God still sees the longing of my heart and declares it beautiful.
At the same time, I am challenged about how I in turn respond to people in my community who don’t reach out for Jesus in the ‘right’ way – perhaps because of their mental health or other challenges.
Perhaps they come to church late, make a noise, shout out at the wrong time, or sneak out for cigarette breaks. And yet as they reach out to God. I pray that my response is more like Jesus’ than the Pharisees and disciples.
Livability launched ‘Lifting the Lid’ this week to support churches and the vital role they can play in creating a place of welcome and open conversation for people living with mental ill health.
As Livability started thinking about mental health, we built a relationship with Mind and Soul, a brilliant organization which brings real knowledge and wisdom to this much misunderstood subject.
With them we wrote the Mental Health Access Pack – full of information about a whole range of mental health diagnosis and treatments, aimed at informing and equipping local Christians. Along with them, we want to lift the lid on ignorance and misunderstanding about mental health.
This resource would also never have been written without our friends in the Diocese of Lichfield, who first challenged us to write a course about mental health, and then piloted various versions, helping us to refine it.
I have been privileged to host a number of meetings for Christians with a whole range of mental ill health – from depression and anxiety to psychosis or eating disorders. We usually start by asking ‘What one thing do you wish the Church understood about mental health?’.
Inevitably, the initial conversation is full of anger, as years of built up frustration find a release. But the conversation usually calms, as people bravely share their experiences of positive and negative experiences of church.
I hope that this resource does justice to the many who courageously told their stories. If there was one overwhelming message I heard from Christians who struggle with poor mental health, it would be “Talk to us!”. We hope that this resource helps to lift the lid on stigma and silence.
As I speak to people about my own experiences of poor mental health, I am surprised how often their response is ‘me too!’. And that’s as true inside the church as it is outside. Mental ill health is not unusual nor is it limited only to some groups.
Yet despite the fact that so many of us struggle in this area, there is little Christian teaching on mental health. Certainly, at first glance, the Bible seems to dedicate much more of its space to leprosy than to depression. And yet I refuse to accept that the Bible has nothing for us.
Lifting the Lid takes six well-known Bible stories and examines them through the lens of mental health. How does God treat the heartbroken? the isolated? the desperate? the grieving? the exhausted? What can we learn from Jesus’ example?
As Livability publishes Lifting the Lid, it’s my prayer that churches use these resources to have honest conversations about mental health. God cares about mental health – so too should the church. I believe it’s more important than ever that local churches have open, informed, compassionate conversations about mental health.