We Are Not Alone
Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-18
Of all the chapters in the Bible, I believe that chapters 18 and 19 of the First Book of Kings are the ones most likely to give you scriptural whiplash for the swift change in the experiences of the prophet Elijah is breathtaking. Previously described as a sort of spiritual superhero, in chapter 18 Elijah reaches the apex of his ministry when he mocks and defeats his enemies, invokes the miraculous and demonstrates God’s power in his solo victory over 450 prophets of the false god Baal. And no sooner had he taken his bow and wiped the ash from his tunic that we find him wondering through the wilderness, stumbling across a solitary broom tree, lying down, condemning himself and wishing to be dead.
Some of us might find the speed of change of Elijah’s mental health jolting. Others might well empathise for it is by no means unusual for us to experience a time of doubt or depression following a mountain top experience of our own.
That’s just one interpretation of Elijah’s experience, of course. Others include the suggestion that he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the horrors that occurred on Mount Carmel; that he was paralyzed by stress; that feelings of loneliness and profound self-doubt led to his suicidal thoughts; or even that he had bipolar disorder.
We cannot know for certain, of course, the reasons for Elijah’s change of outlook but what we can say is that, like countless other women and men of great faith in The Bible, like King David and Hannah, Saul and Jonah, Paul and perhaps even Jesus…that Elijah experienced a time of mental ill health. That fact alone might well challenge our understanding of mental health. For if in centuries past it was understood that mothers and kings, prophets and priests could all become mentally unwell and yet such people were valued, trusted, accepted and called by God then how much more should we be aware, accepting and inclusive of those who experience mental ill health today?
Mental illness is an equal opportunities offender. It pays no heed to gender or job, to class or colour, to age, status or religious belief. So our focus on mental health and the Church over these next few weeks is not a question of working out how to welcome ‘them out there’ but of how we care for ‘us in here’ for if one in three people experience a time of mental ill health in their lives than that goes for one in three church members; one in three elders; one in three ministers. And if we are to follow Christ’s call for us to love one another, then we are called to love and care for those of us here, and those beyond these crumbling walls, who experience mental illness. Over four services then, during this month and September, we will be reflecting on the issue of mental illness and our faith; of how the church might be a place of acceptance and inclusion, belonging and love for all – male and female, Jew and Greek, mentally well and mentally unwell.
For now though, let’s briefly consider how the story of Elijah and his depression might speak into this issue. First, then, there is the presence of the angel;
“An angel came to Elijah, touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 Elijah looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”
When at his lowest ebb, when physically and mentally exhausted, an angel – a messenger of God – went to Elijah, touched him, spoke with him, fed and watered him, and it was this that gave Elijah the strength to carry on.
One of the many reasons why people can feel awkward or unsure about how to speak with or care for those experiencing mental ill health is that they don’t know what to do or say – something that L’Arche Community founder, Jean Vanier, and Scottish theologian, John Swinton, tackle in their reflections of the church as an inclusive community. They write –
“Maybe we will end up saying, ‘I am sorry I can do nothing for you, but I want you to know that we care for you’. ‘Maybe we can put you in touch with somebody who can help?’ Such an admission is the beginning point for healing. Maybe doing absolutely nothing is what needs to be done? Being rather than doing may be the key to meeting those with difficult mental experiences.”
Being rather than doing. We are not…any of us…qualified psychiatrists but we can be…all of us…angels; messengers of God who can simply be present with those who are suffering. Perhaps, like Elijah’s angel, it might mean sharing food and drink with those who are ill – offering a cup of tea and a biscuit, our company and our time. And perhaps, like Elijah’s angel, we will need to do this more than once, perhaps offering ongoing companionship, for the journey to wholeness or even just survival can be long, the wilderness walking can take a while. Yet this is a gift we all can offer – offer, not force, for there will be some people who sometimes need space in times of mental ill health but for others, our touch, our company, our time might well be needed. This is what it means to follow a God who came to be with us. Who came to share our pain, listen to our cries, who laughed and wept, ate and drank, who was and is with us.
Thanks to the presence of the angel, Elijah was able to journey onward but his depression did not disappear. When he gets to Mount Horeb and collapses in a cave, God comes to him and asks him ‘What’s going on?’; ‘What are you doing here?’. No ‘cheer up Elijah, things could be worse!’ No condemnation or sermon. Just a simple invitation to dialogue. One which Elijah accepts as he shares his story, speaks of his frustration, tells of his loneliness. Perhaps this was just as key to Elijah’s journeying on as was his encounter with the still, small voice of God! Sharing our stories, speaking of our frustrations, even with God, and telling of our loneliness might well be the first step that we need to take when we dealing with mental ill health.
Time and time again, evidence and experience tells us that it is good to talk. It might feel scary. It might feel embarrassing or awkward at first but just the sheer opportunity to express how we’re feeling to someone who will listen, to hear ourselves articulate our own pain can be a way of coping for some; a foundation to wellness for others. Perhaps this is why the psalms are often so raw. Perhaps this is why we are invited to pray, to talk with God. Perhaps this is why Christ asked questions, listened to the lonely, sought conversation with the burdened. And perhaps, through our focus in worship and through the listening campaign on which we are about to embark, we might dare to share our story; we might ask a friend how they are feeling; we might make God’s love present through the sacrament of listening.
Perhaps, of course, some of us will want to share a thought, an experience, a prayer or reflection on this issue but are not yet ready to do so verbally. Well, for August and September, if you would like to write out your reflection, and it can be named or anonymous, if you feel able to share your story with others in this place, and I think it would be appreciated by many others if you did, then I invite you to put your reflection into the box that you’ll find at the back of the church marked ‘Mental Health Reflections’ – or perhaps to email me – and we’ll share what is written or prayed for in our upcoming services. Feel free to write anything – your experience of mental health, some advice, some frustration, a prayer – whatever you would like to share, and it will be heard.
One core benefit of hearing the experiences of others is, of course, to learn that you are not alone. “Only I am left,” Elijah said to God as he shared his story. And this was true to his experience. He felt alone. And God tenderly said back to Elijah, “You’re not alone”. There’s mention of Hazael, Jehu and Elisha; of seven thousand more in Israel. When we feel at our lowest, when we’re mentally exhausted, when life has beaten us down and we want to lay down and die, it’s so easy to feel alone. Yet in our darkest hour, even when we hide in our own personal caves, God is with us. In our brokenness, sharing our pain, embracing us with a cwtch, God is with us. And if we feel too burdened to see that, then may we glimpse God’s love in the presence of others. May we come to learn that though each experience of mental ill health is unique, that there are others who have trod a similar path; that there are others who have felt the desolation we feel; there are others who can understand something of what we are going through. You – we – are not alone.
To illustrate that now and to enable us to listen to the stories of a range of young people all of whom we have experience of mental ill health, we are going to watch a 6 minute video from the charity Mind. May God speak to us through the words of others…
“I’d wish I’d known it was possible for people to love me for all of me, including my mental illness”.
May this church be a place where all truly are welcome. May this be a community where we can bring our tears and laughter, our mental wellness and our mental ill health. May we be a family where all can be listened to and loved, accepted and embraced as children of the God who created us, knows us and loves us. Amen.