Mental health and a weary church

As I write, we are in the middle of a third national lockdown and the impact of the pandemic on mental health is a focus of concern.

We can easily hear the term, ‘mental health’ and think that it represents a set of problems that is someone else’s speciality. The kind of things that psychiatrists and psychologists are best placed to address. And yet mental health struggles are expressed in everyday contexts and in ordinary ways:

“I don’t know if I can face all this again…”
“I wish they would just let us know what’s happening!”
“My head was fried today…”
“You just feel the weight of it all…”
“Are things going to get better?”

These, and a million other responses, are how mental health problems can begin to present themselves. We might notice a friend seems quieter, or more withdrawn. Or a family member complains of more tiredness. Or someone seems more on edge, isn’t sleeping as well, and their appetite has gone down.

What’s more, struggles don’t arrive fully developed on the doorstep of the mental health services. The comments above are made in passing, during a conversation on the phone, or muttered under the breath during other tasks. Changes in behaviour are noticed by those nearby, living under the same roof or in regular contact. In other words, the ‘first on-call team’ is usually someone in our family, friendship group or church. We are the first responders!

But let’s be honest, we’re weary. Flatness of mood, flagging energy, feeling ‘fed-up’: these are experiences we’ve all had lately. Churches face the effort of re-thinking meetings, Zoom fatigue, fears as those near us and we ourselves contract Covid, the sense of defeat and disappointment as ministries we’ve given ourselves to for years now appear to fall apart. It’s as much as we can manage to do the essentials of home, work and church life. How does a tired and weary church community continue to care well and respond constructively in these days?

Jesus runs to help those who are burning dimly

“Behold, my servant … a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not quench” (Matthew 12:18). Are you feeling almost extinguished? Flat, emotionally spent, weary? Does it feel at times as if there’s barely a flicker of spiritual energy? Jesus comes along and ensures that the flame of spiritual life is not extinguished. He cups his hands around your faith and gently blows the breath of grace and mercy upon your soul. His word speaks. He meets you in prayer. He uses the kindness of a friend. He relieves a situation. In these and many other inscrutable ways he administers grace to help in time of need.

Jesus uses us especially in our weakness

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Isn’t it true that we are so often used when we feel at our weakest? When we least feel like helping another, then we are often most helpful! When we feel least able to contribute wisely, people are blessed by what we say. It’s a reminder of God’s economy: when I am weak, then am I strong. To help another when I myself am weak and weary is an opportunity for the power of Christ to rest upon me.

Jesus calls us to lift up our hands

How then do we respond? The One who fans the embers of our spiritual life anticipates that we will grow weary, and that we will need a power outside of ourselves to come upon us. So, on that basis, we act. As we receive his gentle power, we are encouraged to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for your feet” (Hebrews 12:12-13). Hebrews speaks to the weary and faint-hearted who still have a race to run before them! But better fruit is ahead and so we are called to action in the midst of weariness, and setting a course to bless others.

Weary and faithful

What will it look like for you today to strengthen hands and knees? Move towards someone who signals need. Your friend makes a joke about the stresses of home-schooling her 8-year-old with a crying toddler in the midst. Ask, how are you really doing these days? How are you finding the Lord’s help? A teenager mentions the uncertainty around their exams. Ask, is there any way I can be praying for you in that? An older person in church lives alone: make a phone call. Offer to drop off some shopping.

You won’t feel very powerful. It will, in fact, feel like it’s a battle. But love doesn’t always feel strong, or joyous, or convenient. That’s the thing about drooping hands. It’s more comfortable to leave them where they are. But to lift them up? Too much effort. And those weak knees that just want to rest up on the sofa. Strengthen them? No thanks. So how do we do it? Only one place to turn. Call out – “Lord, I need you. I am tired. To be honest, Lord, I couldn’t be bothered. But you call me to love. Ok, Lord, who have you put in my life to show love to today? Help!”

And then you will pick up that phone when you would rather relax on the sofa and zone out with another episode of your latest box-set. You will pray for someone, even when your heart doesn’t feel pristine clean. You will carve out time for that walk with someone from church, even if the tentacles of WFH (that’s working from home for the uninitiated!) are creeping through your whole day.

As you do, you’ll be helping to stem the tide of mental health problems. Yes, really! This is where it starts. But more, much more than that. Jesus’ gentle power will fan the embers of your heart and you will know the gracious energy of Christ to rest on you. And you then become a channel of that powerful grace into the lives of others, strengthening them with that strength with which the God of all strength strengthens you.