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).

Day two – Loneliness

A series of 13 reflections for Mental Health Week

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.

Psalm 25:16-18

Loneliness is an experience that we can all relate to, but almost 1 in 5 people in the UK often or always feel lonely. The figures are higher for the elderly and for young people. If you are lonely, it would seem, you are not alone but that is unlikely to provide much comfort. We are social creatures. We need to feel connected to others.

It is possible to feel lonely in a crowd, or in a marriage. It is equally possible to be alone and not to feel lonely. Feeling lonely and being alone are different things. Loneliness is more about the company that we would like to have and do not have, the discrepancy between the way things are and the way we would like them to be. 

Enduring loneliness can be both a cause and a consequence of mental ill health. The Psalmist is lonely and afflicted, distressed, and troubled. In Psalm 25, loneliness is associated with troubles of the heart or, as we might say, depression and anxiety. Pain and trauma can create, and perpetuate, our feelings of loneliness. We can feel abandoned even when others are trying to show that they care. We may feel that others do not understand what we are going through. 

The Psalmist turns to God for help, and asks that God will turn to him. Prayer is not a magic solution for loneliness. Nonetheless, like the Psalmist, we can be honest before God; there is no need to pretend. We turn to God for God’s sake, not simply to ask him to fix things. God is always there, even if it does feel as though he has turned away. When feeling lonely, turning to God, and asking God to turn to you, is not a bad place to start.

A “Have a Go” habit: Prayers

  • Photos of family and friends, and other reminders around the home, can trigger feelings of loneliness, but they can also be good prompts for prayer. They can remind us to write, or send a message, or make a telephone call. Imagine that God also gets a copy of the letter/message, so that it becomes a part of your prayer.
  • Pray for neighbours and for God’s creation (and that we might all look after it better). If you can’t get out, make use of magazines, TV, internet and other media to provide points of contact with the outside world. Use these things as reminders to pray for others.
  • Try writing a letter to God – what do you want to say? What would you point to in your life? What would you ask, and what kind of answer would you like back?