Day nine – Blessed are those who mourn

A series of 13 reflections for Mental Health Week

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

‘Count your blessings’ is one of those unhelpful things that people say when they really mean ‘You shouldn’t feel the way you do’. It can be one of the least helpful things to say to someone who is feeling low. So what does Jesus mean? Is he another one of those unhelpful people, who know just how to say the wrong thing?

We often think that “blessed” means “happy”, but how can those who are unhappy (because they are mourning) be happy? Blessedness is not exactly happiness. It is not helpful to tell people who have been recently bereaved that they should be happy, even if this is based upon a hope of heaven or life after death. But this isn’t really what Jesus is saying. The context of that passage is one just like ours – in which war and terror place people in exile and captivity, and in which the present reality is anything but happy.

Pain and trauma can easily lead us to struggle with our mental health – quite rightly. Bad things do, and should affect us. But what Jesus is promising is different; more a promise that God is always with us even – perhaps especially – when it seems otherwise. God walks with us to help us find meaning and new hope. God also calls his people to comfort one another, so that this comfort isn’t some distant concept, but a reality for today. We are called to provide comfort, and allow ourselves to be comforted by the love of those around us.

There is, however, a paradox to reflect upon. We often do not fully realise the depth of God’s love when we are content and self-satisfied. Sometimes, only when we mourn over the loss of the people and things that we love the most do we fully appreciate what really matters.

A “Have a Go” habit: Sit down

  • Picture being in that crowd and Jesus catching your eye, knowing your feelings and circumstances and saying straight to you “you are blessed”.
  • Have a go at breathing in the word “blessed”. Repeat it slowly.
  • Look at Psalm 40…a bad day, a deep hole? God lifts you, God sets your feet on a rock, God puts a song in your heart…

Day eight – eat, rest, sleep

A series of 13 reflections for Mental Health Week

Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’

1 Kings 19: 3-4

Have you ever been busy with work or a task and, having got through it all, then found the anti-climax afterwards even harder to deal with?

Following a dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal, Elijah found himself in a literal and spiritual wilderness. None of us are immune to bodily, emotional and spiritual tiredness. The threats of those who seek to do us harm, get to us. We feel negative about ourselves, about our circumstances, and about what might happen in the future. We get depressed. We doubt God, and feel that we have failed God. We might even feel that our lives are no longer worth living. Life seems both dark and hopeless. This is not about lack of faith.

Elijah’s response is honest and leads him to meet with God not in dramatic events, but in a place of sheer silence (verse 12). However active and enthusiastic we may be in God’s service, we all have our limits. When we reach these limits, are we able to encounter God in the silence to which they lead us?

A “Have a Go” habit: Eat, rest, sleep

  • If you read the rest of Elijah’s story, you’ll see that he needed sleep, and food and something to drink. Are you getting enough sleep and eating well?
  • Use a meditation phrase from the psalms: “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.” (Psalm 4:8) Repeating this as you go to sleep may help.
  • Practise the ancient prayer of examen at the end of each day.
  • Thank God for signs of his love and beauty. Let go of things that were not lovely and beautiful. Be forgiven and try to forgive. Bless yourself with peace as you drop off.

Day seven – hearing voices

A series of 13 reflections for Mental Health Week

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’

Matthew 3:16-4:3

Where did that thought come from?! We’ve all had the experience of thinking something strange and wondering where the idea came from. If it’s a good thought, we might say “I would never have thought something like that! It must be God.” If it’s a bad thought, we may feel that it reflects badly on us – or that it must have been the devil that put it there.

Our inner voices are a vital part of our conscious experience. They are also the fabric of our prayers. If we are wise, we learn to discern which ones are to be listened to. Jesus was obedient to the Spirit, who led him into the wilderness, but then he heard the voice of the tempter. This voice questioned what the voice from heaven had said at his baptism. Indirectly, it helped him because, in his dialogue with this voice, he clarified what his vocation as Son of God was to be. It would not be about self-serving miracles, about human glory, or avoidance of suffering. It would be a life of service and self-giving.

We know now that many people hear voices (out loud) who are not mentally ill. It is not the hearing of voices that we need to be afraid of. We all hear voices. We need courage to listen, and wisdom to discern what they mean.

A “Have a Go” habit: Centring prayer

  • Sit still in a chair whilst you drink your cup of tea or coffee today.
  • Repeat and breathe in the words of Psalm 85:8 “I will listen for what the Lord says for He will speak peace“.
  • Whenever other thoughts come to you, acknowledge them and come back to the Psalm phrase. “He will speak Peace.” Imagine this as the centre planet and the other thoughts orbiting around it. This is not thought control just choosing a focus.

Day six – switching focus

A series of 13 reflections for Mental Health Week

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

Luke 10:38-42

Life sometimes feels like one long to-do list. It always seems like someone else manages it better than we do. There is nothing new in frenetic activity, and the longing for space, for time to think and just catch our breath, particularly at this difficult time.

In our story, Mary is lovingly devoted to Jesus. She hangs on his every word. We might ask – What if Martha had been like this too? Who would have cooked dinner?! Presumably – eventually – someone would have had to call for a break and the work would have been shared?

Jesus validates Mary’s choice. She is sitting, listening, taking time to reflect, to learn, and to be with God. Of course, Mary would need to work too. But Jesus here reminds Martha that all of us need a balance between activity and rest, between doing and being, between throwing ourselves into work and responding to demands, and proactively looking after our deeper selves. It may be you can only carve out a minute or two at a time – but those are precious already. Find time today to sit at the feet of Jesus, and listen, to him, to yourself, to the deeper, quieter voices of life.

A “Have a Go” habit: Mary moments

  • Now you are practising your “Martha” habit with your cup, sitting at Jesus’ feet, try a “Mary” make over: pick any household task such as boiling a kettle.
  • As you do the chore slow down, see Jesus there while you take a little longer…try not to multi-task…breathe deeply and be aware of Jesus near you.
  • Repeat Psalm 16:8 “I keep the Lord always before me”…whatever chore or task imagine doing it with and for Jesus.

Day Five – Time well spent

A series of 13 reflections for Mental Health Week

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

Luke 10:38-42

What is the passion in your life? Do you spend a lot of time wishing you could do something else, particularly at this moment of global crisis?

Martha welcomes Jesus, and she serves Jesus in practical ways. She wants to do the right things. How can this be wrong? Somehow, amidst the mental activity and busy routine, she risks losing the one thing that is needful. She is understandably cross with her sister. Perhaps she is jealous? Does she really want to be at Jesus’s feet too – or is the activity a way of avoiding that?

Our passions to do what is right are vital to society and human wellbeing, and we cannot do without them, but they easily become an end in themselves. They lead us away from other priorities. They master us and consume us. Mental and spiritual wellbeing require that we keep them in context.

A “Have a Go” habit: The cup

  • To help with the “one thing”…being with Jesus… attach your daily habit of sitting with Jesus for a few minutes to an object eg a Mug or cup and a certain chair / seat.
  • Sit still before the day gets going and hold a cup in both hands…. know you are held.
  • Repeat, breathe in or meditate on Psalm 46:10 “Be Still and Know that I am God!”

Day Four – How are you?

A series of 13 reflections for Mental Health Week

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: ‘O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.’

As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’

1 Samuel 1:9-17

Have you ever found yourself not knowing what to say when someone cheerily said “How are you?” Perhaps you felt awful, but didn’t like to say so? A friend of mine had this experience once when leaving church. She decided to be honest, and said that she felt terrible. The unheeding reply was “Oh – that’s good!”

There are unwritten expectations about how people should behave, just as there were when Hannah prayed in the Jerusalem temple. Mental ill health makes it difficult or impossible to fulfil them, and our unwillingness to be honest about such things contributes to the stigma. By conferring stigma on those who suffer from mental ill health, or even on those who simply give honest emotional replies to everyday questions, church and society make things worse.

Unlike God, human beings cannot see what is in someone’s heart – unless they share them. However, if we ask, we need to be ready for honest answers, and honest answers make vulnerable people more vulnerable. If we join in with God, in searching out one another’s vulnerabilities, we need to get more like him in loving and accepting what we find.

A “Have a Go” habit: Truth time

  • Look at Psalm 139:1 “O Lord, you have searched me and known me”. God loves you and really knows you. Read the Psalm, slowly more than once every day for a week.
  • Choose one of the things God says about you and stick it next to your bed on a post-it note.
  • Whenever you feel misunderstood repeat the truth on a post-it note.

Day three – God in our struggles

A series of 13 reflections for Mental Health Week

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until day-break.

Genesis 32:24

It has been said that if you cannot stand your own company when alone, you should not impose it on other people! Perhaps this is unfair? Some of us (especially the extroverts) only really get to know ourselves in company with others. However, isolation does have a way of confronting us with some of the things that we try to avoid. We say that our “demons” haunt us in a sleepless night, but sometimes it is God who haunts us in our solitude.

Jacob, fleeing from one set of problems, in the family of his in-laws, is returning to another set of problems back in his own family in Canaan. He is not really alone, he has a large family of his own, with many maids and servants. Despite this, as home gets closer so does the reality of the family conflict that he has avoided for so long, and so does the weight of the burden that he alone carries. In the solitude of a sleepless night he finds himself wrestling with a man who will not disclose his name. Given his fears, we might conclude this man represented Jacob’s demons, but Jacob comes to a very different conclusion. “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (verse 30). Judging by Jacob’s experience, seeing God may sometimes be a real struggle, but it is nonetheless a blessing. In the light of the following day, Jacob is reconciled with his brother.

We may not want solitude, but sometimes life forces it upon us. It is easy to focus on the loss of companionship and loss of opportunities that isolation brings. Sometimes, however, what we really fear are the reminders of the things that companionship and activity usually help us to avoid. Scary though these things may be, God may well be in our midst, waiting to bless us.

A “Have a Go” habit: Praying in solitude

  • Make a list of all the good things – and people – that you miss when you are on your own. Give thanks to God for all the opportunities that life has afforded to enjoy these things, and for all the people through whom he has blessed you.
  • Digging up our deepest fears may not be a good idea when we are on our own and have no one to turn to. However, if they come your way, avoiding them may also not be a good idea. Simple prayers can become a means of finding God as we wrestle with these fears. For example, the Lord’s Prayer or the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner), can be said over and over again. Lighting a candle can also be a helpful prayer, asking God to bless us as we struggle in the dark. If the struggle is hard, then do reach out to others for help (using the internet or telephone if you are in strict isolation).