mental health

Living life to the full with God

A sermon about the church’s response to the current mental health epidemic based on Luke 5:27-32 and Philippians 4:4-9.

31 Jesus answered them, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call respectable people to repent, but outcasts.”

Luke 5:27-32

These words of Jesus were considered to be important enough is recorded by Matthew and Mark as well as Luke.  Given this we assume that they were considered important by the early church. If you think about it, however, they run rather counter to the vision of mission that the church has adopted since that time.

For most of church history, however, the driving theology of Christian mission, which comes from many other parts of the Bible, is that all people need salvation. This is at the root of Methodism and summarised neatly by the first of the Four Alls, an early 20th century summary of the theology of John Wesley:

All need to be saved.
All may be saved.
All may know themselves saved.
All may be saved to the uttermost.

Can you see the difference? Jesus’ in the words we’ve heard read from Luke’s gospel,  defines his mission as to those who are sinners or outcasts, whereas the church from its very earliest days has generally assumed that its mission is to everyone. Of course you can pick other Bible passages to support this later view but if you look to the synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke and Matthew), which scholars generally assume were the first to be written and the most likely to reflect what Jesus actually said, then the focus of Jesus mission is definitely on the sinner and the outcast.

Of course the church has often got around this apparent contradiction by assuming that we are all sinners , the doctrine of original sin. Thus if the mission of the church is to save sinners then this must include everyone. I’m not convinced that this is what Jesus meant in these verses, however. He explicitly defines two categories of people, the healthy and the sick, or the respectable person and the outcast, and chooses to focus his mission on the latter rather than the former. If we really want to be inclusive, perhaps we come summarise it by saying that all need salvation but some need it more than others. Perhaps a more subtle variation might be that all people need salvation but some (the sinners and the outcasts) are more likely to appreciate it than others.

This is important because we have a problem with church growth in Western Europe, and have had for getting on for a hundred years now. Attendance at traditional churches and belief in Christianity within the population has been diminishing for a considerable period now. The Methodist church in the UK is facing a crisis as numbers fall and the age profile of those left behind increases. Bramhall has been able to buck the trend to a certain extent but we cannot be complacent about what the future holds. Considerable effort and resources have been put into mission over the years. There have been small pockets of success, but the overall picture has been unaffected.

Perhaps we’ve been focusing on the wrong people. Perhaps we’ve ignored these words of Jesus. Perhaps we’ve focussed our mission on the healthy and the respectable and ignored the sick and the outcast. Perhaps if we realigned ourselves with Jesus teaching and focussed our efforts on the sick and the outcast then we would find people who are more receptive to the gospel message, people who are more appreciative of the salvation that we offer.

But what does this look like in an affluent suburb like Bramhall? I’ve spent quite a lot of time recently looking at economic and health statistics that describe the two wards that this suburb is divided into (North and South) . This is one of the healthiest and most respectable places to live in Britain, certainly in Greater Manchester. If we want to focus our mission on the sick and the outcasts then how do we find them in Bramhall?

This is where we have to might benefit by looking at the one of the great challenges facing our society, the current mental health epidemic. I preached on this theme at a Thursday morning service in Mental Health Awareness Week in May and drew on figures that had been produced for a survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Mental Health Foundation. Three quarters of those questioned had been so stressed at some time over the last year that they had felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Of those people nearly half reported depression, over half reported anxiety. About 1 in six had self-harmed at some point in their lives and almost a third had had suicidal thoughts or feelings. Around half a million people report clinical levels of work-related stress. If we look just at the National Service then 15 million working days were lost in 2016 to absences due to work-related stress.

Just pause, think of your own experiences at work, think of your colleagues, think of your family. These are not just statistics, this is a lived experience. If we want to take Jesus word’s seriously, if we believe that people who are well do not need a doctor but only those that are sick, then we have no shortage of people who are sick. The people of Bramhall may be wealthy and physically healthy, but there are plenty of people here who are struggling with their mental health.

Let’s extend that pause and reflect through the words of our next hymn: O Christ the healer, we have come, to pray for health to plead for friends.

So what would mission to people with work related stress and other health conditions look like? To work effectively here we need to marry our traditions and theology to the insights provided by modern medicine and clinical practice. If you go to the NHS Choices web-site you will find that contemporary approaches to mental wellbeing focus on five steps:

Connect
Be active
Keep learning
Give to others
Be mindful

With the exception of being active aren’t these the core activities of our church? What are we all doing in church, before church, after church, in our weekly activities if we are not connecting? The focal point of our worship is a sermon in which we also learn and teaching has always been a core focus of our Christian activities. We give to others monetarily and through our time. And Christianity has a traditional of meditative prayer which goes back two thousand years, well before the extremely recent secular alternative of being mindful. We don’t often wee physical activity as a core component of our faith lives but we can work on this. If you think about it the NHS is really advising people to go to church to look after their mental health (particularly if we can encourage them to walk to get there). Wouldn’t it be great if we could build on this and make this an explicit focus of our mission.

The only approach to treating people with mild and moderate mental health problems which has any serious evidence base is called cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT. It’s based around a simple theory of how our thinking, feeling, physical feeling and behaviour are inter-related. They are envisaged as being linked in a cycle.

CBT cycle

Starting off with our thoughts. If something happens us it might change the way we think about things. So for example if we lost a job we might think that this is because we are not good at that job or that we are useless. This can lead to altered thinking or emotions. We might feel guilty or ashamed or anxious or irritated. These emotions often lead to physical symptoms, anxiety can often lead to nausea or sleeplessness. This in itself can lead to altered behaviour. We might feel so tired from poor sleep that we stop doing things, even things we enjoy like going out, meeting people, getting to church. The really important thing is that this altered behaviour can then have a further effect on our thoughts. If we are not careful we get into a vicious cycle where things get worse and worse and worse.

The power of CBT is to recognise that whilst, if we allow ourselves to be altered in a negative sense we can get into a vicious circle, all our negative responses in each of these four areas will reinforce each other, if we can alter ourselves in a positive sense then those positive changes will also work in a reinforcing cycle. We will have a virtuous cycle which offers us a path our from where we are to a new life. We can choose to start this process at any part of this cycle and the most obvious is to start by altering our thinking.

Let’s go and look at that section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard read earlier:

In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable. Put into practice what you learned and received from me, both from my words and from my actions. And the God who gives us peace will be with you.

Paul didn’t know it at the time but he is effectively recommending that the people in Philippi undertake a programme of CBT. He is recommending that they start thinking about the world in a different way and promising that if they do this effectively, following his teaching, that the God who gives peace to all will be with them. If we want to focus our mission on the sick as Jesus suggested then Paul is providing a methodology for doing this which is very close to contemporary clinical recommendations.

This is why I’m looking for your support for an initiative I want to lead for the new Church year. It is to offer a programme called Living Life to the Full with God to our local community. The programme marries insights from modern CBT with the traditions and theology of Christianity. It’s a series of eight classes, designed for people who want to improve their mental wellbeing, or support those they love in doing so using these tools. I’m looking for your prayers. I hope that the explanation you’ve heard today for my motivation will support you in doing this. I’d love to have practical support for anyone who feels they have time to help me offer the programme either through helping lead sessions or in providing hospitality for those who attend. I’m also looking for help in promoting this. If you feel you would benefit please come along but perhaps more importantly if you have family members, friends, neighbours or colleagues who might be interested then please tell them about it encourage them to come along. Planning is at its early stages at the moment, look out for details in Contact and the Notices.

Let’s take those words both of Jesus and Paul seriously. Let’s offer new life and the peace that passes all understanding to a community that so desperately needs it.

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All may know that they are saved (now!)

A sermon for Aldersgate Day 2018.

Two people had a word with me last week to point out that today is Aldersgate Day. They thought it would be good if I could preach on the topic, I suspect what they really meant was that it would be good to sing some of Charles’ well-known hymns. I hope I’ve been able to deliver at least on that front.

It has been quite a challenge for me. The Wesleys are, of course, the founders of our denomination and I had to learn a certain amount about who they were, what they did and what they believed when I trained as a local preacher . For all that, however,  I find even the modern translations of John’s sermons quite impenetrable. It’s not just the antiquated language. They are sermons addressed to a specific context which is very different to the context in which we live today. There is a huge gulf in culture and concerns between mid 18th century England and the present day.

I think if we want to look for contemporary resonance in the Wesley’s theology we need to look to broad themes rather than individual sermons. Perhaps the best starting point is the four alls.

All need to be saved

All may be saved

All may know that they are saved

All may be saved to the uttermost.

I’d always assumed that these were framed by John Wesley. I discover, however, in my reading preparing for this sermon that they weren’t. They were actually first written down  more than a hundred years after his death by a Methodist minister called William Fitzgerald who, like me, was trying to make sense of all those sermons that John had written addressed to a different time and in a different context.

I haven’t got time to do justice to all four of these so I want to focus on the third. I choose this one because I think it is perhaps most distinctive contribution of John Wesley’s theology and also because I feel it is most relevant to the present day.

For most theologians before Wesleys (and for many since) salvation was fundamentally about what happens to us when we die. There is no doubt that the Wesleys saw salvation in this context, but they didn’t just see it in this context. Salvation for them was something that we start to experience in this life. Experience is perhaps an understatement. Salvation is something that transforms our lives now. The experience is so remarkable that we are granted complete assurance that we are now living in the power of God’s Spirit.

This wasn’t book-learned theology. This was their lived experience. John and Charles had been ordained clergy in the Church or England for over a decade. By any judgement, they lived model Christian lives. They term Methodist was coined to reflect their meticulous approach to living out their faith. Yet both knew that something was lacking in their lives. On this day 180 years ago John, at a meeting in Aldersgate Street in London, felt his heart “strangely warmed” and, as he later wrote, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This followed an uncannily similar experience that his brother Charles had had three days earlier. The point I want to emphasize today is that the Wesleys didn’t see this assurance as a promise of some salvation they would receive in the future, or confined to the question of what would happen to them after death. They saw it as a part of their lives from that time forwards.

The meeting John had been at in Aldersgate Street had been at a reading of Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans”. If we read Romans we see the Apostle Paul describing this same experience that the Wesleys had had. Romans Chapter 8 verse 11, as we heard read from the Good News Bible earlier, says:

If the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from death, lives in you, then he who raised Christ from death will also give life to your mortal bodies by the presence of his Spirit in you.

Just as in Wesley’s time, today we often assume that our salvation is primarily about what happens to us when we die. If we read this verse carefully though, we see a different picture, life is given to our mortal bodies, with the implication that it is given now, rather than to our immortal spirit (or whatever) after death.

Other translations make the point even more forcefully, take the Good as New Bible:

If God’s spirit has taken possession of you, then just as God brought back Jesus from the dead, so the same Spirit will give your humanity a new lease of life.

or JB Phillip’s translation:

Nevertheless once the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead lives within you he will, by that same Spirit, bring to your whole being new strength and vitality.

or the Message:

When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s.

In this text salvation is not about a transformation after death it is about a transformation in the midst of life. It is a transformation we can experience now and be assured of forever.

In many ways this message is even more relevant to the modern world than the people to whom the Wesleys were preaching. Most people in Europe at the time believed literally in heaven and hell and one of their primary concerns was where they were destined for themselves. Many of them came to Christianity primarily to protect the fate of their immortal souls.

beliefThe modern world is very different. Most people in the UK now do not believe in life after death as revealed in numerous surveys. The most recent I came across (conducted on behalf of the BBC in February last year) suggested that only 46% of people in the UK believe in life after death (and amongst those about a third believe in reincarnation rather than in an afterlife).

It follows from this that if we want to proclaim a Gospel that will draw people to faith then we need to emphasis the transformative power of that Gospel within life (which will be relevant to everyone in the population) and focus less on its impact on any after-life (which only about a third of the population believe in anyway). The Wesley’s doctrine of a faith through which all may know they are saved does just this.

life after death

As well as exploring the implications of this survey for our mission to those outside the church it is interesting to reflect on those for Christians within it. The large majority (85%) of “active Christians” believe in life after death and it is important to emphasize that so did the Welsleys. Their belief in spiritual transformation in the midst of life reinforced their belief in life after death, to them it was a foretaste of the feast that was in store.

But the survey suggests that about 1 in 7 “active Christians” do not believe in life after death. These, I assume, are people who in the light of a modern understanding of how the person, the mind and the brain are inter-related cannot believe that the person can persist once the brain has died. If we extrapolate this number to the current congregation then there are perhaps 7 or 8 of you here this morning in this position. The first message is to reassure you, if you think like this, that you are not alone, there are 6 or 7 like-minded people here today – it’s just that you don’t know who they are. But the more important consideration is that the Welsleys’ conviction that salvation can be experienced in the midst of life opens an avenue for how the Christian gospel can make sense to people who can’t believe in life after death. I suspect the number of these people will grow as the implications of modern science become more widely accepted. In saying this I must acknowledge that nothing could have been further from the minds of the Wesleys living right in what was still, essentially, a pre-scientific age.

The promise of transformation within life is also increasingly important to the modern world in the light of the epidemic of mental health problems that we are facing. I spent considerable time exploring this last Sunday at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week and don’t want to repeat what I said then, but we are facing an extraordinary rise in the number of people who are stressed, depressed, anxious, obsessed and even suicidal. In medical terms these are people who are ill, but in theological terms they are people in need of salvation. That salvation needs to be a lived experience offering transformative change now rather than just a promise of a better life to come once their current torment has been lived through. This is exactly what the Wesleys’ theology is offering. It is also what Jesus and the early disciples offered when they cast out demons -and offered wholeness to the broken-hearted. There can be no more pressing need today than for the church to cast out the demons that blight the current age and offer wholeness and meaning to those who can see no purpose in life.

In summary then, on Aldersgate Sunday, I invite you to embrace our Methodist heritage. Let’s celebrate the promise that we can all be assured of our salvation now. None of you who know of my passion for Christian Aid will be surprised to hear me conclude by stating that this aspect of the Wesleys’ theology can be summarised by the most powerful advertising slogan I have ever heard – “We believe in life before death”. Let’s go now, and offer this to our community and our broken world.