Psalm 139, I Corinthians 13:13
Last Sunday afternoon I had the privilege of participating in “Beat the Blues”, an event self-described as an “interactive arts space affirming the ups and downs of life”. This was a Christian event organised by several members of the Uniting Church from across South Australia and Adelaide and it was held at The Corner UCA in Warradale. It was a time of reflection on the journeys many people make through mental illness, and a celebration of those who are surviving the passage. There was music, poetry, coffee, and space to “just be” and to respond creatively to what was being said. It was also a fundraising event for beyondblue and I was invited to speak on their behalf. Many of you known that I am a volunteer speaker for beyondblue, and those of you who know that also know that I am myself a mental illness survivor who is in the “resilience” stage of Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia.
As an organisation beyondblue is not Christian: it is not un-Christian or anti-Christian in any way but it is secular in orientation. But that is not to say that it is an organisation which is unaware of the place of spirituality and religion and the role faith and ritual can have in healing and recovery from mental illness, and in ongoing positive mental health. Of course beyondblue are aware of these things: I work with them after all and I never shut up about Jesus when I’m in conversation with the team in Melbourne! As a speaker for beyondblue as well as my telling basic information about what our organisation does in terms of research, advocacy, and support, and some facts and statistics about what depression and anxiety look like in the Australian community, my main role is to tell my personal story of survival and to pick up on the three core words that beyondblue wants to get out there. These words are Hope, Recovery, and Resilience.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, (or at least the first letter of his of which we have copies), he writes about three core words: faith, hope, and love. By Paul’s way of seeing the world when all is said and done these three things remain, and of these three things one thing is greater than the other two. The greatest thing is love. When I began speaking to the group last Sunday night, and remember that I was addressing a Christian crowd, I quoted I Corinthians 13:13 to them and allowed them to fill in the final word. But sadly, like St Paul, they got it wrong.
The greatest of these is not “love”, it is “hope”.
There is no faith without hope: because hope-lost people do not know how to believe.
There is no love without hope: because hope-lost people do not know how to belong.
Perhaps it is better to feel loved than to feel hope-filled, and without love hope can seem to dry up, but love is dependent upon hope, especially if your emotions and thinking are affected by the faulty wiring that typifies mental health problems and mental illness.
The first event in recovery, as mapped by a beyondblue speaker doing his organisation proud, is the recognition that help must be sought. “I am sick and I want to get better”. As a Christian who has walked this path as both a survivor and a speaker I want to suggest to you that seeking help is coming to the understanding that what I am searching for is hope.
Recovery is the second great word. Recovery is believing in hope. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
Resilience is the third great word. Resilience is living by hope. Even though there may well be another tunnel at the end of this light, there will be another light at the end of that further tunnel, and no matter how many more tunnels this journey enters each one ends in light and more light.
As a speaker for a secular organisation like beyondblue, and it is much the same for them as it is for Schools Ministry Group for whom I was a Christian Pastoral Support Worker (or “school chaplain”), I’m not expected to talk about God. And generally I don’t. My responsibility is to tell my story of hope, recovery, and resilience to encourage and direct others to find their own way along that same journey. My own story of hope is a story of my Christian faith, and as such that is the context that I speak about, but I see my role as a speaker as pointing towards hope rather than pointing towards God. But just between you and me, and whoever reads this on my blog, I have confidence that if I point people towards a journey of hope they will continue along that road until they find Jesus because it is only in him that hope has a home and our deepest senses of longing are filled. If such people don’t actually “become a Christian” before they die, well that is as it is, for me. You may disagree with me on that, you may see the work of a Christian as necessarily pointing toward conversion, but as an advocate of hope I understand my job is to point toward hope, and help people start that journey. It is up to them and to God to end the journey well. In parabolic language I am a sower; let others tend and reap.
In Psalm 139 we read the private thoughts of a man who has found hope and who sits in quiet wonder and reflection on the source and shape of that hope. This man has done some hard yards and he is still walking the journey of hope. This man has found both belief and belonging on that journey.
Open your Bible up and read along with me:
1-6 God knows me intimately and knows everything about me, even more than I know about me.
7-12 I can never be lost or far away from the God who knows me, even when I want to be far, or try to be, or believe myself to be. Look at 11-12 with a mind toward poor mental health.
13-18 I was made by God, deliberately, for a purpose and according to a design and plan. Look at 14 as a response to feelings of poor self-worth.
19-24 I can be honest and transparent before God, confident that I am acceptable.
In his book “Naked Before God” Bill Williams, who as he writes is in his mid-thirties and is slowly dying of Cystic Fibrosis, writes “I am trying to remember who I am.” This is the struggle that many people outside the walls of the Church face, not only those struggling with the unhelpful thinking patterns of mental illness but also the unhelpful thinking patterns of a broken world. Indeed there are plenty of people inside the Church who struggle with identity too. Williams reminds us that the work of Jesus is to remake us and to restore the broken and dishevelled likeness we currently exhibit to the good likeness and image of God we were created with. Psalm 139:14 tells me quite clearly that I was not made poorly, I was made good, but I have been broken. The Gospel of Hope is that there is a real me, the image of God to which I shall be restored and repaired.
Our job as the local church is to be ambassadors of hope. In beyondblue there are two categories of public agency trained to speak on our behalf: the Speakers (like me) and the Ambassadors. A beyondblue ambassador is basically a speaker with a high public profile, not necessarily a Jeff Kennett, a Jessica Rowe or a Johanna Griggs, (indeed your name need not begin with J at all), but someone who if they have an opinion also have a following who makes that opinion noteworthy. I wonder whether Kangaroo Island has a number of speakers of hope, but not many ambassadors.
Are we people of influence in our community?
Do we want to be?
Who are we in this community to speak about hope? Who would listen to us if we did?
Bill Williams says a lot of things I’m not sure I agree with, but then he’s dying so I’m prepared to cut him some slack. But one thing I am warming to is his idea that when Jesus says to someone “your sins are forgiven” he is doing more than absolving their guilt; he is saying to them “you are acceptable to God”. Grace tells us that none of us are worthy of forgiveness, but each of us is chosen to receive it nonetheless. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees of his day thought Jesus was only a speaker of grace and not an ambassador. They did not accept that he was authorised to speak of God’s prerogatives with such boldness, but that is not what we believe of Jesus. We read in John 1:1 that Jesus is the Word of God, the greatest ambassador of hope ever to be sent.
So the Word of God tells us that we acceptable to God. The scriptures tell us that we are amazingly and intricately made, never truly alone in the darkness, wonderful and able to be restored. The Church tells us that all of this is true, and that this message has been effective since Jesus walked out of his own tomb proclaiming life and restoration.
The question today is, who are you going to tell?
We are ambassadors of hope, we speak from personal experience.