Category Archives: Mental Health

One of the greatest motivators of all

Sometimes I find it hard to stay motivated. If my confidence and energy is low, I can look to the author and perfecter of my faith and feel insignificant and feeble, rather than energised and encouraged. I feel small and weak, and in a world that seems full of people doing significant things, I feel profoundly mediocre. I can feel like it’s not worth trying anything because if I do it will go badly, or it just won’t matter in the bigness of this world.

This can be a general feeling, but also in my Christian life. Nobody will care about my testimony, what I have to say doesn’t matter, I can’t even get control of my sinfulness. I’m distracted and moody, emotional and lazy. I catch myself in pridefulness and all manner of other states that Jerry Bridges would call “respectable sins“.

It all makes me feel lost and in a mess. And who do you turn to at those times? I have my Christian community and my trusted friends of course. But there’s a promise in the Bible that, even on the surface, is amazing, but is even more encouraging when you dig deeper.

Hebrews 12:1-2a says “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

We often focus on the bit about throwing off the sins because, as humans, we tend to err on the side of the things that clearly tell us what we’re supposed to do. But the bit that I think is equally important is the “cloud of witnesses”.

Hebrews 11 gives a list of these witnesses who lived by faith. At first sight they are intimidating – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab. Then judges, prophets and David himself. Great! A list of witnesses to remind me how horribly under par my life is.

But look again. All of the witnesses were not perfect – far from it in fact. Murderers, prostitutes, drunkards, liars, swindlers. The judges were all comparatively rubbish and David himself did some ghastly things. I haven’t done any of those things but it helps me to remember that these people are not the perfect witnesses that I might first think.

And then there are other witnesses mentioned, the tortured, the flogged, the imprisoned, the persecuted, poor and destitute – all mistreated for the sake of their faith. I have not had this misfortune (praise God) but this is starting to sound more like normal people – people just like me, who rose to the occasion on the strength of God.

But there are two things in particular that are important here. First, there is a cloud of these witnesses. Now for us, we might think “cloud” and envision fluffy bundles in a blue sky. But the Greek nephos is hardly used in the New Testament. Where it was more used was in Greek literature:

In a work by Herodotus who was an ancient Greek historian, he says “We have driven away so mighty a cloud [nephos] of enemies” when describing a battle in the Persian Wars. Homer in the Iliad says that “In front fared the men in chariots and thereafter followed a cloud [nephos] of footmen, a host past counting”.

A cloud of witnesses – and a cloud that has a military inference, and is a host past counting. Think about that:

Ah, burning cities, clashing armies, just another day in Rome: Total War.
Source: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/rome-total-war-exclusive-hands-on/1100-6105481/
Infantry Painting - Medieval Army in Battle - 15 by AM FineArtPrints
Source: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/medieval-army-in-battle-15-andrea-mazzocchetti.html
Source: https://cinefex.com/blog/dracula-untold-hob-army-final/

Imagine all those people who have come before us – as flawed and as broken as they are. Imagine they are shoulder to shoulder fighting for us. They are our army. And what does that tell us? It tells us we are not alone. It tells us that God has not left us unprotected.

The second thing that is significant is that when we look at these witnesses and try to measure up, we are looking at it all wrong. Those witnesses aren’t there because of who they are or what they did. They are there because of what their story tells us about God.

Through the stories of these people, we see God’s faithfulness. We see God’s grace. We see his mercy and love. We see God’s patience and his commitment to his people and his promises. We see God’s continuing work to provide support and protection for his people. For us.

These witnesses are not perfect. Many of them are just like us. They’ve done great things, they’ve done some pretty awful things. They are flawed and imperfect and broken – just like us. I find that fantastically encouraging. A cloud of perfect people might make me feel a bit self-conscious. Or it might be a barrier to me believing that they really are on my side because I am broken and flawed. Or it might make me focus on how perfect they are and how that is such an impossibly high bar.

But a cloud of witnesses who are just like me – well that’s a proper army. That makes me feel like I’m not alone. That sustains me. That motivates me. That makes me feel I can deal with my sinfulness. That helps me to know that I can stand before God, because I have all these people standing with me in whose lives God already worked and through whom his plans were brought into effect.

Moving past fake to authentic

If you’re reading this in the future, remember that time when we all had to stay indoors and separate ourselves from each other? Yeah, it was 2020 – the year of the pandemic that cost thousands of lives and caused untold upheaval to so many.

Initially there was a wave of bravado, then fear and then blaming. But there was also a wave of kindness. A kindness pandemic to chase away the global fear and uncertainty. And then these two things balanced in tension as we tried to work out how to do life in the new and temporary normal.

While working from home and home schooling our kids and trying to support our elderly and vulnerable family and friends from a distance, two critical things have happened – we started shaming the people who were organising themselves well and we have started wearing our gritty anti-coping realness as a badge of honour.

Now I say this on the basis of social media which is the worst kind of information-diet we can have, but the easiest source of connection. It’s the equivalent of junk food and we know we shouldn’t binge on it, but binge we do.

And as we do, the people coping (apparently) OK with the working from home and home schooling post pictures and comments that make us feel bad. They have organised school rooms and structured timetables and activities, they’re doing art and puppet shows and crafting – and running a spotless household and working.

What is that bundle of emotions it makes me feel? Is it jealousy? Is it shame because I am not doing nearly so well? Is it anger coming from the assumption that they’re doing it to show off? It could be all of those things and more, but what we can know for sure is it feels like a dull weight in our stomachs, giving us a slightly queasy feeling.

We don’t know why people are posting. Maybe they’re proud of themselves – and frankly from some that I’ve seen, they should be because they’re doing brilliantly. Maybe they’re proud of their kids for coping so well. Maybe they are showing off a bit, but maybe they are also reaching out because in this uncertain time, they feel off balance and they are seeking validation or connection.

But we feel bad because we think it makes us look bad. And so it has very little to do with the person posting, and far more to do with us personally. Because the act of comparison makes us feel like we look bad, it triggers negative emotions – anger, resentment, bitterness, even contempt.

First off, we project. If I am feeling bad, I’m going to make it your fault, so I am going to project onto you the reason that you’re posting those things – and I’m pretty sure it’s deliberately to make the rest of us look rubbish and know what insignificant failures we are. Of course, this is nonsense. We are making up all sorts of thoughts and motives for them and that’s just not fair. But it makes us feel better somehow.

Then, we start wearing our own perceived failings as a badge of honour – its almost a rebellion against the people/posts making us feel bad. We write, like and share posts about not getting dressed, drinking at breakfast, keeping our kids quiet with devices and chocolate, drinking at lunchtime, slacking off from work and so on. What are we saying when we do this? Are we trying to be self-effacing? Are we claiming a false modesty? Is it anti-virtue signalling by showing off our supreme ordinariness?

Of course being real and authentic is good. But I think we can be in danger of wallowing in our realness and even faking a gritty level of authenticity to make us look extra amaze-balls.

And you know why this is such a terrible trap to fall into? It’s all made up. We champion fake authenticity because we feel shamed by others posting their authenticity. We have no idea if that is authentic or not but because it made us feel bad, we needed to respond somehow to make ourselves feel better. Even if you didn’t respond, we’ve allowed ourselves to feel feelings about what we see on social media that then influences our heart, thoughts, attitudes and behaviours. All based on things we have thought and assumed that aren’t even real.

This is terrible for our mental health. It’s terrible for our connections during this time of social distancing. It impairs our relationships – most of all, potentially the one we have with God.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says to the believers, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

When I read that, it feels like I’m breathing in cool fresh air. The bites I read on social media are garbage by comparison. The truth…..the truth….the truth that Jesus came to save us from our sins – the very sins we fall into when we take in too much social media (among everything else!).

The truth is, while we scroll through social media and huff and puff and get annoyed and make assumptions and judge people and ourselves, Jesus watches and waits. He watches and waits for us. He watches and waits for you. Let this be the reminder you need to switch off and breath in the clean air of the truth of the gospel.

We can look at social media, of course, we can stay connected and we can source interesting stories and information. But like all humans, we can take a good thing, and turn it into a bad thing.

Moderation.

But how do we do that? Its like trying to train yourself to have moderation with eating or shopping or anything – you can start off well and then it all goes……horribly wrong…. But Jesus gave us the key. “If you hold to my teaching” he said. Don’t focus on the problem, focus on the solution. Focus on him first and the rest will fall into perspective. We must seek the kingdom first.

So, in this time of social distancing, are you reading your Bible still? Have you got out of the habit of praying? How are you finding online church and Bible study? There are lots of little anchor points that we’ve lost. In some ways, this should be easier for us, but its not. I used to pray in the car – well, I’m not driving anywhere now so I have no markers in my day to do it. I’m finding I have to re-train myself in some things and actively look for anchor points in areas where I can feel myself slipping further away.

Let this be the reminder to look again – even among the chaos – how are you going? How is your faith? How is your prayer life? Do you feel close to God? Get a Skype or Zoom room or Facebook chat happening with some Christian friends. How are all of you going?

If we can take a moment to correct our course, we will be the kind of authentic that is good and godly and healthy. Because we will be authentically following Jesus and living in his truth – not in the “truth” of what we scroll through on our phones and ipads.

Is it OK to feel anger towards God?

Our emotions are strong. They are messy and chaotic. They seem to act on their own – something happens and our emotions just take over. Sometimes they seem to rule our responses.

I’m not talking here about “good” anger – that is, the kind of anger we feel when we see an injustice and the feeling of anger we get that compels us to act for change. That kind of anger has driven the civil rights movement, got the votes for women, started charities like International Justice Mission and A21, it has opened hospitals and orphanages. This kind of anger is a spur to change the things that break God’s heart.

I am talking about our instinctive anger in response to people and events around us that appear out of our control. I am talking about anger that comes from fear, frustration, despair, anxiety, emotional exhaustion and stress.

And these are all feelings that can, in times of trouble, be directed towards God.

Anger is a natural reaction. But it is important to recognise that it is a secondary emotion – there’s something else happening underneath.

The Anger Iceberg
Source: Gottman Institute – https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-anger-iceberg/

Why is there a link? Why one emotion and then another? It’s because we are built to do something with those emotions. Emotions are not just emotional feelings, but also physiological responses. When we feel under threat, anger floods our body with adrenalin and all the chemicals we need to fight or flee. Anger pumps our body with the energy we need to respond.

When we don’t need to physically fight or flee though, where does that energy go? We can turn it inwards, or squash it down, which is terrible for our mental health. It’s like drinking acid and arsenic.

Or, we can direct it towards others. This can involve disproportionate responses over something tiny, having a giant row, having a controlled discussion (I’m talking all the usual stuff here, not the abnormal responses where impulse control can be an issue which are not-not-not OK). We can cry and blame and accuse. We can resent and bear a grudge and hate.

And when we direct this towards God, is that OK?

Partially, yes. Does that surprise you?

There are so many psalms that include some variation on “how long, Lord?”. In that phrase is captured all the pain and fear and anxiety and anger that a person can feel. Look at Psalm 13: 1-4:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

The psalmist feels ignored by God. Things are so bad, they feel as though God has abandoned them. They are crying out to God in their sorrow but there is also implicit blame.

And there are many of these psalms – Psalms 6, 35, 74, 79, 80, 89 and 90 are just a smattering.

Does this mean that the psalmists were a whiny bunch of whingers? Not at all. The Psalms are God’s words. They are the words He gave to us to say when we have no words of our own. They allow us to express anger, frustration, hurt, doubt, anxiety and despair. He wants us to throw this at His feet. He wants us to open our hearts in all the rawness of our emotions.

But He doesn’t want us to stay there. See the end of Psalm 13:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

We cry out and throw our negative emotions at God, and then we remember. It’s like a pressure valve. All that adrenaline needs to go somewhere – it goes to God. And when the energy is drained from us, we remember that He is there, and He is in control. And he still has us in the palm of His hand. We release all that bile and bitterness and acid and arsenic. And then we rest.

You see, it’s worth remembering that often we get angry because “this is not how things should be”. I should not have lost my job. My relationship should not have ended. That person should not have acted like that. They should not have treated me that way.

These hurts are based on our expectations of how things should be. But its not how things are. God is there for us in how things are. But He will also bring about how things should be. Just not yet. That is what we look forward to. Its where our hope lies. We are His now, but we will be with Him in eternity.

So, when you are wrangling with your anger and negative emotions, here’s a few tips:

  • Remember anger is a secondary emotion – what is going on underneath?
  • Recognise that your emotions are causing physiological responses – and that energy needs to be directed somewhere.
  • Direct the energy in ways that cause the least harm to others or yourself (its worth reading more about tools and tips for anger management in the moment. There are lots of useful articles on this, for example at this link).
  • Know that anger is a natural response and don’t feel bad or blame yourself for feeling it.
  • Know that it is OK to express those emotions – in all their ragged and raw honesty – to God. He even gave us the words to use if we have none of our own.
  • Pour it our to God. Don’t try to hide it from Him. Don’t think that He will somehow think less of you. He wants you to pour out your soul to Him – not in a formulaic way – just let is pour out. Blame Him, accuse Him, ask Him where He is. This in itself is an act of faith because you are taking your pain to your God and not ignoring Him in favour of a self-help book.
  • Remember a lot of our anger can stem from the way we think things should be, but not how they actually are.
  • Remember that God is with us in how this are, but He is also bringing about how things will be.

Given that we know that God is bringing about how things should be through His sovereign plans, and that we know God is faithful to His promises, know that it is good to pour out our hearts – but don’t stay there. We don’t want to wallow in our pain or celebrate it – and God does not want that for us either. Remember the end of the “How long” psalms. They all end with the psalmist resting in the Lord.

We are safe in Him, spiritually – and emotionally. Our God is patient. He gives us time. Your hurt lasts longer than a prayer. So keep praying. Keep talking to God. Give God your fears and anger. Give Him your prayers. Give Him your time. But know that He is there in the darkness with you.

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)

We are not in stasis while in isolation – we can grow and thrive despite our circumstances

OK we’re into the second or third week of working from home, home schooling, online church and gatherings limited to 2 people. It seems a bit surreal. We got all geared up like we were preparing for a couple of weeks of weird holiday and now things are starting to settle, the reality that this is our normal for the foreseeable future is setting in. That means that the current “survival mode” is how things will be for maybe 6 months.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be in survival mode for months on end. That means treading water. That means just existing.

No. There has to be more to this time than that. If nothing else, so we can keep our mental health strong, there has to be more than just existing.

So what to do?

I’m about to mention 3 people who we are definitely NOT, but they serve to illustrate a point.

William Shakespeare is thought to have written King Lear while in some form of quarantine from the plague. We don’t know if that’s true or not but its plausible and certainly possible. Between 1603 and 1613, because of plagues and sickness, Shakespeare’s theatre (the Globe) and other theatres in London were shut for more than 60% of the time. So it’s not unrealistic to say he did a lot of writing while in some form of lock-down.

The reconstruction of the Globe Theatre in London. Source: https://teach.shakespearesglobe.com/fact-sheet-third-globe

In 1665, there was more plague and Sir Isaac Newton went to Woolsthorpe Manor to get away from it. He was there for 18 months and he started to develop his theory of gravity there, as well as working on his revolutionary theories in calculus.

Woolsthorpe Manor - west facade.jpg
Woolsthorpe Manor. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woolsthorpe_Manor#/media/File:Woolsthorpe_Manor_-_west_facade.jpg

Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon while in prison. We know these as canon, of course, but for Paul, these were just letters. Legend surrounding Paul’s time in prison says he performed a miracle there which suggests that he was active in his evangelism as well as his written pastoral guidance.

Ancient prison which housed St Peter re-opens in Rome
Carcer Tullianum, Rome’s oldest prison (3,000 years old) where Peter and Paul are said to have been held. Source: https://www.thelocal.it/20160714/ancient-prison-which-housed-st-peter-re-opens-in-rome

Now I don’t know about you, but I am not going to invent some mathematical theorem – I can’t even help my 8-year old son with his year 3 homework. And very few of us are Shakespeare. Even less of us are Peter and Paul.

But what these people show us is:

  1. They went from existing to living life and even thriving. I’m sure that going to Woolsthorpe Manor or hunkering down somewhere in London required some modification of behaviour given what they couldn’t do. But then they clearly then moved onto what they could do.
  2. They used their skills. Shakespeare wrote. Newton did deep thinky brain work. Paul guided. These were all skills that they took into quarantine with them and they allowed to breathe within those confined spaces.
  3. They used their brains. They thought, they worked, they stretched themselves which takes people beyond existing and into thriving.
  4. It involved new things. In so doing, they created new things, even learned to do new things. This is so key in mental health. It keeps our view on things bigger than our current situation. It gives us a focus on possibility, hope, a larger world.
  5. They saw opportunities. When in quarantine or prison, if you can’t do this, then maybe I can do that. Paul couldn’t visit the churches so he wrote to them. Charles Benson Barnett was a missionary with the famous James Hudson Taylor. When he was forced to return to Australia because of ill-health, he founded Sydney Missionary and Bible College. He couldn’t go, so he trained others.

Jesus himself told us that he came so that we might have life to the full. There is no caveat to that – he didn’t say “unless there’s a pandemic and you’re in lock-down”. He came so we could have life to the full all the time. That is what is available to us no matter where we are.

So how can we use our brains? Where can we see opportunities? In saying this I recognise that Shakespeare, Newton and Paul either didn’t have children or had someone else taking care of them – and they didn’t have another day job that they were working-from-home on. But within the restrictions that we have, how can we look upwards and outwards? How can we do something new?

Here’s some ideas:

  • Decide on a goal that you have for your isolation time, for example:
    • I want to grow as a disciple
    • I want to learn a new skill
    • I want to expand my brain
    • I want to build community
    • I want to strengthen others
    • I want to spread God’s word
  • Then, depending on what goal you have identified, you can set out some tasks you want to commit to, like:
    • Commit to listening to a podcast series that is edifying and will expand your thinking and your faith. Try Lionel Windsor’s Lift Your Eyes or Risen Motherhood. I listen to these on Spotify but they’re available wherever you get your podcasts
    • Start looking at YouTube videos if you want to learn how to knit or crochet or learn the rules of cricket or how to draw cartoons
    • Get online books to work through an author or series (I’m currently working through the Narnia books)
    • Work through a devotional book with your family and/or an online group who you’ve never met with before
    • Write letters of encouragement (on your own or with your kids) and post them to your neighbours
    • Meet online with someone who’s on the church periphery to read the Bible and pray together
    • Start a blog or a journal to map your life during this time – it may make for a pretty interesting record in a couple of decades!
    • Look for ways to support others who are less self-sufficient. These are strange times and these are scary times. For some of us, it’s trying to do normal work and life from home. For others it is losing our jobs and potentially a lot more. If you are in the former group, what can we do for the latter? Even if its making an extra meal once a week, sending notes to those who live alone, or committing to buy a few extra groceries for someone every week, or forming a prayer triplet to pray for those you know in your church doing it tough – all these are good. What else might there be?

There are lots of ways we can use our brains and thrive as individuals, as families and as a community so that during this time we aren’t just treading water. We want to come out of this stronger, not having just existed. Not exhausted from the work and the home schooling and the parenting in isolation (although many of us will be), but having found opportunities to thrive. Not beaten down from the fear and the worry (although that is a definite factor), but finding ways to live life in the kind of abundance that Jesus talks about. Being in him. Growing in him. Reaching our families, reaching our communities, thinking bigger than ourselves.

Lets do what we need to do. But then lets use our brains, and our skills. Lets learn new things and look for opportunities. Lets set goals – even small ones. Lets keep our eyes upwards an outwards so we take care of ourselves and our families, but always look for ways to look beyond ourselves.

In Christ, well that is thinking bigger. It would be easy, in a time of uncertainty, to keep our eyes down and do what needs to be done. But lets make sure we keep our eyes on him. If we look to him first, we can live and survive, but we can grow and thrive too.

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:9-11)

The diagnostic question to ground you when you feel the fear rising

Fear is both rational and irrational. It is a rational response to a perceived or actual threat. When there is a threat that requires a response, fear is the trigger that floods our body with the right biological chemicals for us to meet it. It gives us the energy to fight or flee (if we think in prehistoric terms).

It is also an irrational response though when we put that energy into circular thinking, leading to amplified fears. Fear becomes panic. No matter how we channel that panic, it is unhealthy. Especially when we are working at home, we can be in our heads too much. Unchecked, we can’t help but think of more things to worry about. Fear flourishes when it finds fertile ground. It’s like cancer. And if we let it metastasize, it can have serious negative consequences.

Now, I am a mad fan of connecting with friends and, when need be, psychologists and therapists. Outside of that though, there is a simple diagnostic question that we can use to ground ourselves and stay focused on the positive and the real.

Write down on one piece of paper:

What I believe

Then jot down everything that you currently believe that your fear is feeding – such as:

  • I will not be able to get food for my kids with all the panic buying
  • My parents will get sick
  • I’m going to face financial hardship

There is power in writing it down. It takes it out of your head. It makes it concrete – not just a half shadowy thought. It makes it something to be acknowledged.

So then, write down on another page:

WHAT DO I KNOW TO BE TRUE?

This is where we can write down everything that is a solid truth, like:

  • I have enough food for the next week
  • My parents are in as safe a possible space as we can make for them
  • I don’t have any savings, but I have a job this week, I am surrounded by friends/family who may be able to help, I am a problem solver and I am resourceful IF I face financial hardship – but that has not happened today.

AND because we are Christian, we can also add so many more things we know to be true:

  • God is in control
  • Jesus is my Lord and savior
  • God is faithful
  • God works for the good of those who love him
  • I am a child of God

Write these down. See them in black and white on the page. Know them to be true.

This exercise can be done as many times as you need to and can be done with a friend or trusted colleague. Hopefully this will be grounding enough to help get you through the day. And since one of the things we know to be true is that God communicates with us in the Bible we can meet him there whenever we want.

I’ll admit, in these times of uncertainty, I have felt fear and worry on various days – sometimes rational fears and sometimes irrational. But I have my Bible open on the desk in front of me so at any time I feel wobbly, I can meet God in those pages.

This grounding exercise doesn’t make the fears go away, but it can re-anchor us when negative emotions are starting to rise up.

If the fears are flourishing though, please seek help. Reach out. We need to support each other and we want to as well – reaching out is not a weakness. It is allowing others to support you and, given strength and support, you can then strengthen and support others.

Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

We must be a life-line for those in self-isolation

Whether you’re in Australia, the US, Italy, China, Singapore or Timbuktu, we are all facing the realities of the COVID-19, or corona virus, pandemic. I’m not going to go into the panic buying (although that is shocking) and I’m not going to post prayers as I hope that’s a feature of all our responses as Christians.

What I want to talk about is how we support people in isolation. At the moment that might not be so many, but the number may increase, and potentially quite dramatically.

Parents with kids may look on this with a heavy heart. Some who will be working from home might initially jump at the idea. Some introverts might even look forward to the idea of being able to catch up on all that reading.

But there’s a hidden risk in self-isolation that may only become apparent when we’re in it – and that is an impact to our emotional health and mental well-being.

There are four aspects of this:

  1. We need interaction. Humans are social creatures. Even for us introverts and ambiverts, we need contact and communication. For extroverts, who are energised by being around other people, being stuck in the home can be especially difficult. We can go about our daily routine, work-from-homers can hold our meetings and so on via connective technology, but we’re missing the communication that we get in church, at the play group or at the office that is of vital importance to emotional health and mental well-being. We miss the water-cooler talk, the chats over lunch, the side comments after something funny or annoying happens, the coffee runs, the post-weekend catch ups. In other words, the day-to-day nothingness that enriches our day in community with others. Without it for prolonged periods of time, this can become a slow track into adverse mental health. It provides fertile ground for people being in their own heads too much – unproductive and circular negative thinking – which can lead downwards into depression.
  2. We need a pressure valve. We work in industries and live lives that can involve high pressure situations, whether that means deadlines and aggressive project timeframes, or relentless energy being poured into aging parents or multiple children. One of our coping mechanisms can be the interaction with others in the same situation. It helps us to talk and laugh and blow off steam. Being in isolation can mean that coping mechanism is removed.
  3. People are experiencing fear on top of fear. There have been a lot of scary things happening in the last few months. There’s been the Amazonian and Australian bushfires, floods in Australia and the UK – and now this. These are real life events that we’re used to seeing in disaster movies. Except this is not Hollywood. This is real. This can cause very real feelings of fear and uncertainty. When people are dealing with this on top of their day-to-day real life, this can very quickly become hopelessness. And when people feel hopeless and helpless, they can begin to despair.
  4. The home may represent additional pressure. People’s home lives can come with extra stresses on a normal day, and more so if working/existing in isolation. There could be elderly parents to take care of and kids that becomes extra pressured if fixed within four walls. The home situation might not even be a safe one for them. The world outside the home could be the place that they go to every day that represents safety and security and fellowship. These people could be facing compounded pressures at home during this time that reduces their coping mechanisms. In a time of additional stress and pressure, it could even be a potentially more dangerous place for them.

This sounds very dramatic, but even a fraction of what I’m talking about can mean that we have people working and living in isolation in a way that can have long reaching effects.

As Christians, I would hope that we have a better handle on this supporting people even under normal conditions, let alone a crazy scary time like this. But even we might have to get more creative as we have to limit personal contact and practice social distancing.

What can we do? We need to check in with each other for no reason – create opportunities for that water-cooler talk. Think about doing that over facetime or Skype so you can have a cuppa and see each others faces.

Host a watch party so you can gather as people for something fun and people don’t feel alone. (Even, as a worker from home, host a watch party with you work team of a TED talk or something).

Go back to Old School days and send cards in the mail. Leave notes or flowers or small gifts at people’s doors. Call and pray with people over the phone. Maybe even link everyone in via Skype to have a Bible study – the point is to not just stay connected personally but to stay connected spiritually. When we are under pressure, when there is fear and uncertainty, our faith can take a battering. Remember in the Garden – “Did God really say….?”. All it takes is a shadow of doubt and our faith can fade into the noise of panic. Let God’s light shine in the darkness, even when we are hard pressed on all sides – and help each other to do it. Lets get creative in our care.

There are a lot of ways we can stay connected even when we are far apart. As a community of believers, this is an area we can excel. We are called to have mercy and compassion. Lets get creative with our application so in these uncertain times, we can glorify God and express His character through our outstanding and visible kindness and thoughtfulness.

Comfort in pain and the reality of Joseph’s experience (Genesis 37-50)

Joseph is a cracker of a story isn’t it? He’s young and exciting, he has dreams, he’s God’s chosen – he even has a fancy coat and a musical. So even in popular cultural people know bits and bobs about him.

Image result for joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat

As Christians, we might know a bit more. We might understand the context of his story in the broader arc of the whole Bible. We also tend to zero in on Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

This is the pinnacle of the whole story. Focus too far in and you would miss what God is doing. Joseph had the ability to step back and see the broader picture of what had been happening.

However, keep the focus too far out and we might miss the beauty in the detail. The beauty is in the picture of two men – father and son – and their deeply emotional expressions. In seeing their raw and honest emotions, there is profound teaching for all of us.

So lets trace Joseph’s story very quickly:

  • We meet Joseph aged 17 in Genesis 37:2 and he has 10 older brothers. He’s precocious and kind of a jerk – he brings his father Jacob a bad report about his brothers and when he has dreams suggesting that his brothers will all bow down to him, he tells them (which is the worst thing a younger brother can do!). Jacob doesn’t help and shows his favoritism by getting him a fancy coat.
  • At this age, or some time after, the brothers decide to kill him (37:20) but his brother Reuben intercedes. They are going to throw him in a cistern but decide at the last minute to sell him as a slave.
  • Joseph is sold as a slave to Egyptian official Potipher and the Lord was with him (39:2). But Potipher’s wife fancies him. When he refuses her, she accuses him of attacking her and Joseph is thrown in jail.
  • In jail, God is with him again (39:21). While there, he interprets 2 people’s dreams and his predictions come to pass, but it is another 2 years before he gets out and goes into the service of the Pharoah after correctly interpreting his dreams.
  • Genesis 41:46 says Joseph is 30 years old when he enters Pharoahs service and after this, there are 7 years of abundance. Two years into the 7 years of famine, Joseph’s brothers and Jacob intersect with him again – so as the story comes full circle, Joseph is 39 years old.

So Joseph suffers for 13 years before he is released from prison, and 22 years before he is reconciled with his family. We tend to think abut Joseph’s suffering in terms of the “God was with him” bit. I don’t know about you, but when I have been in a difficult place, it is has been possible to see that God is with me, and it is a comfort, but it doesn’t make the circumstances easier to bear in the immediacy and logistics of the situation. If we have a death in the family, or loss of a job, a serious medical issue or a crumbling relationship, we know that God is there and it comforts us – but we still worry and we still mourn and we still feel the pain or the situation.

So lets re-think this a little because there are several clues in the text as to what Joseph really thought and how he felt.

In his late teens, Joseph is facing his own brothers who are going to kill him, or throw him into a cistern in the middle of the desert. Cisterns were wells for capturing water. They were usually dug out of rock and were about 15-20 feet deep.

Ancient Cistern

Ancient cistern. Source: https://www.bible-history.com/biblestudy/cisterns.html

This prospect alone would be terrifying and in 42:21 we see what happened that night. When Joseph, as Pharoah’s administrator, toys with his brothers (who don’t recognise him), the brothers say to one another “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

How distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life. Its a chilling picture. Joseph was terrified. He was just a scared boy.

The same night he is ripped from his family and sold into slavery. We have seen enough photos from around the world of people torn from their homes to begin to understand what he must have been feeling – confusion, fear, panic, loss. Deep down, he may just have wanted his mum.

But he survives. And he loses his young precociousness. In the house of Potipher, it turns out he, with God’s gifts, is a great manager and administrator. But then he is pursued and falsely accused. The injustice must have been a horrific burden. And then again, the fear of not knowing what will happen – rape was punishable by death or castration in ancient Egypt. But he is imprisoned.

Even though God was with him in prison, Joseph was still a prisoner in what must have been dark, crowded and disgusting surroundings. And he was there around 10 years. He endured for 10 years. It’s interesting that when it says “the Lord was with him” it doesn’t say that Joseph bore up well, or that he was content in heart. He was apparently steadfast and trustworthy enough to have been put in charge by the prison warden. But we don’t know how his heart was affected by his experiences there.

Then when Joseph comes face to face with his brothers, his emotions overcome him. He is the most important man in all of Egypt. He is a father and husband. He has saved countless lives through his management of the abundant and famine years. But when he first sees them, he engineers things so that one brother remains and is put in prison (42:19), just as he had been. Then he plants silver in their bags so they must live with the fear of false accusation – just as he had been (42:25-28). They are also to bring the last brother back to him, as what? As a slave? Possibly. But here we see Joseph in a tumble of ragged emotions and knee jerk responses. All the while, dealing with deep and bitter anger and frustration and who knows what else that had been building up in him for over a decade:

  • He (Joseph) turned away from them and began to weep (42:24)
  • Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there (43:30)
  • Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. (45:1-2)

This is where his life of anguish ends as he is reconciled with his family – but the anguish never leaves. We know this from our own bitter experience unfortunately. We may overcome. We may even triumph. But the experience shapes us. What we can say is that God was and is with us, and when the grief subsides, we can see the broadest arc of what He was doing in our lives.

And how about Jacob? My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left.” (42:38) This single line holds such passionate despair and fear. But what is Benjamin the only one of? The only other son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife. Benjamin was the last piece of her that he had.

Both sons had been favoured by Jacob because he loved her so much. Jacob had been tricked by his father in law into marrying Leah and allowed himself to be enslaved and abused for the sake of marrying Rachel, such was his love for her (Genesis 29:18). She died in childbirth with Benjamin and so after the loss Joseph, Benjamin was Jacob’s only link with his departed wife. As hard as that must have been for his other children, we can understand the depth of his longing.

All these years he had grieved and now here Joseph was. Yes, a triumph. Yes, God’s plan. But there is such tragic beauty in the detail. We see strong men expressing their deepest emotions. God did not erase their pain, but He was with them.

The emotions are clear and honest. These emotions are God-given. And this story of Joseph is not the only place that we see God helping and guiding us in them. We see in Psalms, God gives us words to speak to Him in our anguish – we should use them. All of us will face circumstances that we think could break us. It is part of our human experience. But God did not leave us empty handed. We see in Joseph’s story a man remaining steadfast while experiencing all the most natural, honest and raw emotions. And Psalms shows us what we can say when the pain is so deep there are no words. We should not shy away from these.

Women can be good at this but this helps us to have shape to our emotional processing.

Men have not had a history or a culture of being able to do this. So for men, this might be liberating.

Don’t forget, if you find the rawness of these circumstances and emotions scary, let us remember that Jesus showed us the same. He showed us anger (Matthew 16:21-23), he showed us sadness (John 11:32-35), he showed us fear (Mark 14:35-36).

Look to Jesus and the humanity he displayed in all its realness. Take heart from Joseph and Jacob. Read the story. Read them as real people, just like you are. Read Psalm 69 or 86 – see how God helps us to cry out the words to Him when we might not even have them ourselves.

There is beauty in the detail when it is pointed God-ward. We don’t revel in in our negative feelings, but we can embrace the emotions that God gave us to process the pain. Only then can we step backwards and see the greater arc in what God is doing in our lives.

Ever felt like a nobody? (Mark 7:24-30)

I have. I’ve felt like a nobody. Have you? Many people have, I think. Life is really hard. You work away and you carry this enormous load and your emotions are stretched like a taut piece of elastic – any tiny hit is jarring. You run on fumes. It feels like it’s just you. Only you to carry these terrible burdens. And you run out. You just run out. You’ve got nothing left. Nothing. No capacity to take any more knocks, even small ones. No resilience left.

Nothing.

At those times in my life I have despaired. I feel like I have nothing left. I have felt like I am nothing. I’m nobody. The world goes on and I just slog away alone. And there’s no end in sight. No solutions. No end. Just me.

In Mark 7:24-30 we see a woman who is at the end of her tether. How do we know that? Because of what she does and what she says.

Jesus has headed up to the area of Tyre and Sidon. These areas were synonymous with pagan worship. In fact the notorious Jezebel was a princess of Sidon and daughter of the king of Tyre. She was married to King Ahab (check out 1 Kings 16) and introduced pagan worship to the Israelites and wanted to have the prophet Elijah killed.

Now we have a woman from the same area, but approaching Jesus in faith. Like Rahab in Joshua 2 being the only one who has faith, so the SyroPhoenician woman comes in faith. Her act of faith is driven by desperation. Her daughter in possessed by an unclean spirit. I have two little boys and I would do anything to keep them safe and well. I would endure any punishment and humiliation I had to, to save them.

This woman tracks Jesus down, who has gone there wanting it to be kept secret. But this woman finds him and essentially breaks in to approach him. And she, a Gentile, throws herself at his feet and begs. Desperate, humiliated, hopeful.

And Jesus says something odd. “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)

The gospel (the bread) is for the Israelites (the children), not for Gentiles (the dogs).

Children in Jewish culture are the rightful heirs. They are honoured. Dogs are dirty. In fact in Matthew 6:7, Jesus says not to give to dogs what is holy. Jesus is calling this woman a dog? Not so much. This is a teaching moment.

The Israelites have always been God’s chosen people. They are his children. But Jesus had said “first”. Israel first, others later. This continues the trajectory of the narrative arc of the whole Bible that shows that all the nations are God’s plan. Right from the first promises to Abraham when God had said that “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gen. 22:18), to Rahab being the brought into the chosen people, to Ruth the Moabite who is honoured in the line of David and Jesus, to the prophecies of Isaiah where the suffering servant will be “a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth,” (Isaiah 49:6)

This is that moment.

Jesus is also not as harsh as it might first sound also. The word for “dog” he uses is kunarion which is a pup, or a little dog, or a house dog. Not a wild dog but a more affectionately termed animal. A dog that is around the house, that is familiar.

The woman seizes on the imagery and the hope contained in that word “first”. She says “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Verse 28).

She addresses him as Lord. She identifies herself as the dog. And she asks only for crumbs. She has faith and humility. And Jesus grants her request.

That woman must have felt like a nobody. She throws herself at the feet of the one person left in the world who may be able to help her. She literally begs on her knees. I’m a dog, she says. I’m nothing.

No, says Jesus. There’s a plan. Salvation for all. God’s grace extends to all. And there’s an order. But Jesus himself is the turning point. While later Paul’s mission is to the Gentiles, the promise has been there from the beginning and it is Jesus himself who begins the inclusion of the non-Israelites. We see him with Legion in the Gentile region of the Gerasenes of Mark 5, he heals the Roman centurions servant in Luke 7:1-10, he saves the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. And because of the response of this woman, he casts the demon out of her daughter.

Salvation for all. Mercy for all. We are not nobodys. We are somebody. We are somebody to God. We were outsiders. Just like these other people were. But we are not outsiders any more. That was promised right from Abraham – the very first promise included all of us. And if we are not outsiders, we are now his children.

His children. We are not nobody’s. We are his. Even though life is so hard, and we can feel so alone and burdens can feel impossible. We are his. Hold onto that one truth. We are his.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.