J-P spoke to us tonight from the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:1-22). We are people created in God’s image (Gen 1:27) who are sinners; we must never put ourselves on a pedestal, but must also realise that we have the capability to follow God and to lead others to God too.
Growing things takes time and patience; we must not be discouraged if people don’t seem to respond swiftly. For salvation to come, our spiritual ears need opening and this parable shows us that understanding can take time and depends on the soil (our hearts.) For some, the path is so dry it has no soil left. Hearts are closed; hurts have wounded people to the point that they don’t believe God can love or accept them. For some, there is great enthusiasm in the moment (perhaps at events like Big Church Day Out, for example!), but faith doesn’t last on the rocky road of life. For others, the thorns of doubt and unbelief have strangled faith (perhaps the death of a loved one has become a stumbling-block, for example). In all these cases, we need to show love and patience, for faith can ultimately only flourish in good soil.
As we seek to share the good news with others, let’s put Jesus on the pedestal and be there for each other, showing patience with each other’s rate of growth, for we are all at different stages. Plants ultimately need light to grow and thrive, and Jesus is the light of the world. ‘For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.’ (2 Cor 4:5-6)
Stephen spoke this morning on Holy Communion from 1 Cor 11:23-26, 33. Even though at the present time we are physically apart when we share Communion, this act brings us together as we remember Christ and what He has done, and this is an opportunity for us to receive afresh from God. Sharing in Holy Communion is not simply a ritual, something that we do out of duty or to prove our faith; it is our obedient response to Christ’s command to remember His broken body and the blood shed for the forgiveness of sins and a symbol of our union with Christ and our unity with each other.
Participating in Holy Communion acts as a bridge between who we were, before we knew God, and who we are now, His beloved children. In many respects, our lives could be said to resemble clay pots that have been broken by sin. Paul talks of us carrying treasure in jars of clay (2 Cor 4:7-10); we have the treasure of Christ’s life within our earthly bodies. We may be broken (like the ‘china girl’ in the film ‘Oz The Great And Powerful’), but Christ in us restores us, repairs us and makes us new creations. In some ways, we become like a plastic pot rather than a fragile clay one, for even though we are hard-pressed, we are not crushed; even when perplexed, we are not in despair. When we are persecuted, we are not abandoned; when we are struck down, we are not destroyed. All this is because we carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus and so His life is now lived through us. (Gal 2:20)
At the start of lockdown, my daughter-in-law would make a short video at the end of each day of thing her family had done, a two-minute clip of craft activities, learning activities, fun in the garden and mealtimes to remember this unusual time. After a week or so the videos would appear every other day or so; after a few weeks, once a week.
Why did she stop making daily videos? Largely because the ‘novelty’ of lockdown soon wore off and a new routine was established which seemed quite repetitive and boring. Somebody reinvented the boardgame ‘Monopoly’, renaming it ‘Monotony’, to reflect the feelings most of us have had during lockdown.
We might have joked about the view from the living-room compared to the view from the kitchen or tried to make light of cancelled holidays by talking of going to the ‘Costa Del Garden’ in the sunshine, but in truth, we have struggled because our everyday lives feel so repetitve that most of the time it’s hard to even remember what day it is.
If we are honest, though, there is much repetition, routine and boredom in our everyday lives even when we’re not in lockdown. Our work, schoolng and usual routines aren’t always ‘worth videoing’, we reason, because ‘sameness’ features so often. It’s why we make such a big thing of holidays and days out exploring new places and trying new activities.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote about monotony in a more positive light, prodding us to wonder if God ‘is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again”, to the sun, and every evening, “Do it again”, to the moon… It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy.’ I have often wondered if our capacity for boredom and dislike of repetition means we have lost the childlike capacity for wonder.
The child finds no discomfort in repetition; any game soon becomes beloved (‘Do it again!’) – it is the adults who find this tedious; it is the adults who find repetition mind-numbing. Perhaps what lockdown can teach us that there is a value in what seems boring; joy can be found even in the mundane aspects of life. The challenge to adults to learn to be like little children who have the capacity to simply live life in the now and who can find wonder in just about everything.
Stress – pressures or tensions – is an inevitable part of life and is not necessarily bad in small doses! Sometimes, however, we feel that the stresses of life are just too much for us to bear and this can cause our general health to suffer.
We can think of our lives as being like a bucket which is filled with water as the stresses pour in. These can be anything – financial worries, relationship worries, job pressures, academic stress for students, moving house, bereavement and so on. Many stresses are short-term and easily resolve themselves, but others are not quite so easy to get rid of (dealing with a long-term illness, for example.) The current situation, where lockdown has been imposed, job security is up in the air for many and there are fears of illness or dealing with bereavement, is definitely stressful.
In order to prevent the water overflowing and resulting in mental health issues which we find difficult to manage, we need to let the water out of the bucket. That doesn’t necessarily stop fresh water being poured in, but it means we don’t break or snap. These are generally called ‘coping strategies’, ways of relieving and releasing stress.
As this picture shows, we all develop both helpful and unhelpful coping strategies. Some unhelpful ones include smoking, alcohol and drugs, which can generally cause as many problems as they solve, but they also include eating (too much or too little) and self-harm. What we really need are to find helpful, safe coping strategies – for example, physical exercise, eating healthily, getting enough rest and relaxtion, doing something you enjoy (hobbies are great stress-busters!)
One of the additional stresses of our current situation is not being able to spend time face-to-face with supportive people, as many people find they are helped by other people as much as (if not more than) by doing activities. Talking is one of the great coping strategies (which is why therapy can be a useful way of dealing with mental health issues); it helps to bring our anxieties and fears into the open and to know we are loved and cared for. A listening ear is a great help (‘The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.’ Prov 12:15), often restoring a greater perspective to us (stress makes us feel swamped; we literally feel as though we are drowning at times.)
We may well need to find other ways of talking and listening at the present time: phone calls, video calls, texts, sending cards, writing letters, posting out gifts and dropping off goodies such as baking may well become your ‘coping strategy’ at this time (or what you need to receive to help you.) But there is an alternative help which many never consider: God.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean all stress is removed from life (in actual fact, there may well be additional stresses simply from following God!) It does mean, however, that we don’t have to deal with stress on our own. The loneliness and pressure many feel at this time are compounded by isolation, but the Christian is never isolated from God. He is always with us (Heb 13:5, Matt 28:20).
So don’t forget God when you’re dealing with stress. Jesus knows all about stress. He knows what it is to be human, to suffer, to sorrow. (Heb 2:14-18, Heb 4:15) He is there to help us; He won’t abandon us, even if others do. And don’t forget God’s people, for they are often His means of upholding us and supporting us. We may feel we daren’t admit our darkest thoughts to another person and don’t want others to know we’re imperfect and not coping, but it’s surprising how we can be helped up by other people, for we all face pressure and stress (see Eccl 4:9-12). Don’t suffer in silence, but let the water out of the bucket…
This week is ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’, and while we may feel such labels are not particularly useful (since mental health matters fifty-two weeks of the year and not just one), it can be helpful to stop and think about such things in a more reflective way.
People are not just physical beings; we are created in the image of God, and our emotional and mental health are as important as our physical health (in fact, the two can’t be separated; ‘wellbeing’ or ‘health’ refers to every aspect of our lives.) Physical problems may be more visible, however, and therefore we seek help when we see those problems more readily.
How we feel and think are much harder to articulate and discern. This can lead to us becoming stressed, anxious, fearful and even despairing – and not knowing how to handle those perfectly normal human emotions in ways that help us rather than harm us further. We need to understand at the deepest level that God loves us and accepts us as we are, no matter how we feel. He wants us to know life in all its fulness (John 10:10) and to bring us to the place of contentment and satisfaction, no matter what the external stress factors might look like.
We may need to learn new coping strategies, to be transformed in the way we think, to find ways of dealing with the stresses of life, but we can do this safe in the security of our relationship with God. No matter how bleak we may feel circumstances are or how sorrowful our situations, God is a very present help in times of trouble. (Ps 46:1)
Don’t despair; don’t give up. There is hope for the hopeless in God. There is help for the helpless. There is a way out which God provides for us which leads to hope. (1 Cor 10:13)
If you need to talk further with people about mental health issues, here are some useful telephone numbers – but don’t forget you can talk to God about these things 24/7.
You can call Humankind – Umbrella, in Barnsley on 01226 709040 (Mon- Fri 9.00am – 5.00pm)
Or call Barnsley IAPT on 01226 644900 (Mon- Fri 9.00am – 5.00pm)
Or call NHS on 111, or your local GP
You can call Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone).
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one that teaches us much about joy and rejoicing, despite adverse circumstances. Written from prison, while Paul was in chains, we find that Paul, unlike us, is not downcast, despairing or depressed because of his circumstances. In Phil 1:12-30, we begin to see why he is so resolutely joyful. Ultimately, he can rejoice because he knows God is Lord of all and He is good.
Paul was utterly convinced that everything which happened to him was filtered by God and therefore whatever came his way would be used by God for good. (Rom 8:28) He said, ‘Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.’ (Phil 1:12) We may wonder at this statement, since being in prison stopped Paul from continuing his missionary journeys and evangelism, but in fact, he continued preaching the gospel in prison and was encouraged by others doing the same – no matter what their motives. (Phil 1:13-14, 17-18)
Paul was able to see beyond the trouble and the short-term suffering. He knew people were trying to make life more difficult for him. (Phil 1:17) He knew there were all kinds of potential problems ahead, but he also knew that Christ living in him was making a huge difference. He was confident that ‘now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.’ (Phil 1:20-21) As far as Paul was concerned, he was in a win-win situation! If his life were spared (‘if I am to go on living in the body’), he would rejoice, because that would mean fruitful labour for him, the opportunity to continue fulfilling his calling as an apostle to the Gentiles. (Phil 1:22) If he were to be killed as a result of his preaching, he would be with Christ, ‘which is better by far.’ (Phil 1:23) Whatever happened meant he won. Life had meaning and purpose (even in prison) because of Jesus, but then Jesus has made it possible for us to live without a fear of death and dying, because we know that this too has been dealt with by His death and resurrection. To die is gain. We gain freedom from sin and suffering when we die. Paul was able to view life and death from an entirely positive perspective, and if we too learn this lesson, it will transform how we view all the negatives of life, giving us the ability to rejoice no matter what.