The Daily Telegraph published a sensitive piece about the battle with depression fought by Katherine Welby, 26-year-old daughter of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Quoting largely from her blog, her faith shines through, but it is also apparent she has not always been treated well by the Christian church. God’s people don’t always stand by her, depressives fear what others might say, and churchpeople have to pretend everything is fine, despite a Bible filled with screwed-up people.
I am afraid I am not surprised by this account. Of course, I have known many compassionate Christians in the church, who may or may not understand illnesses some members of the church family have had, such as schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, or other conditions. But I have seen intolerance for the effects of medication upon sufferers. I have witnessed the damaging ‘Snap out of it!’ comments. I have come across a naïve reading of the Gospel which seems to think that simple belief in Christ will have an instant cognitive effect, and then we can resume the usual ‘happy ever after’ narrative.
It is awful that there is still a widespread failure to accept that depressive conditions are illnesses. I am not claiming the specialist knowledge that professionals in the field have, because I don’t have it, but I do know this. If someone contracts a commonly accepted physiological illness, there is usually compassion and concern. The failure to recognise mental health issues in a similar way is disastrous, for the way it not only involves a lack of understanding, it also causes a rise in judgmental attitudes. We are meant to be a community of grace.
I read a story that isn’t obviously related to this on Don Miller’s blog. Sarah Thebarge tells how, while suffering the ravages of radical treatment for breast cancer, she was travelling across her native USA by train when she came across a desperate Somali immigrant family. The father had left the mother to care for five young children in a strange land. Despite her own weakness, Sarah becomes involved in the care of this family:
God had loved me when my bald head and mastectomy scars made me feel unlovable. So I began to spend more time with the Somali girls, loving them when their stained clothes and broken English made them feel unlovable.
God had shown me that He was Immanuel, the God who dwelled with me — not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled. So I began spending most evenings at the girls’ apartments, sitting with them in their dark, cold apartment because their mom was worried they’d run out of money for food if she spent too much money on utilities.
‘The God who dwelled with me – not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled.’ Would it not be a beautiful thing if our churches could demonstrate that more with those who face depression and similar disorders?
Yesterday, I visited my parents. It was a good opportunity to see how Mum was getting on since we heard she (thankfully) had TB, not cancer. Dad has since been prescribed antidepressants: the strain of this episode, preceded by Mum’s fall last Christmas, and the prolonged saga of the house move last year have taken their toll on an eighty-one-year-old.
They treated me to an excellent lunch at a favourite pub. Then we returned to their flat for conversation, before tiredness meant they needed a rest and I made an earlier than expected departure.
During that chat, I mentioned a story from the other day. Rebekah had been looking at some coins and had noticed the date. This had fascinated her, especially a twenty pence piece from a galaxy far, far away known as 1982.
Dad got up and went out of the living room. I thought nothing of it. However, he returned with a bag. It was a collection of coins, many of them specially minted for state occasions and still in their presentation sleeves. There were crowns to mark the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 and Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981. There were two wallets of Britain’s first decimal coinage. Then there were assorted loose coins, including some old sixpences. One of these came from the reign of King George V in 1922.
Dad explained that he wanted them handed down the generations of the family. He asked me to keep them safe for our children. While they would be worth more than their face value, they would not be especially valuable, because many of them had deteriorated. However, they would be a fascinating and educational possession. I was delighted, and locked them out of sight in the car boot when I drove home.
It was a joy to come home and tell the children I had a present for them from Grand-dad. In the short time before bath-time, it was impossible to explain the significance and context of these coins to Rebekah and Mark. How on earth will I explain pre-decimal currency to them? I was only a fortnight shy of my eleventh birthday when Britain was decimalised.
And if Rebekah finds 1982 hard enough to comprehend, what price 1922? George V is three monarchs before the current long-reigning Queen (I’m including Edward VIII, even though he was never crowned).
Pounds, shillings and pence and early twentieth century kings will take a lot of patient dialogue and explanation. There are so many foreign concepts to go through in order to make sense of Grand-dad’s gift.
Is it not similar in evangelism today? With, say, three largely ‘unchurched’ generations there is a huge gulf between the Christian community and most of society. (And that gulf may go some way to explaining the misrepresentations of our faith in the media – it isn’t all wilful, much is a genuine lack of understanding.) Evangelism is about being in for the long haul to explain the faith in a context of dialogue. I see the point of those who say that a contemporary repeat of Billy Graham’s Harringay crusades in the 1950s with their remarkable levels of conversionss most likely would not happen today. It isn’t that I think God is incapable of it – of course the Holy Spirit could – but it is to recognise that Graham was able to appeal to a residual faith and call people back to it. There is hardly any such residual faith today.
Our faith is like a 1922 George V sixpence. To most people it appears not to be legal tender. It looks battered, but it is valuable. Nevertheless, to explain the significance takes time.
But the investment of time into relationships as we gossip the Gospel is immensely worthwhile. We are sharing treasure with people.