Monthly Archives: May 2015

Take Me To Church

The Church at Auvers - Vincent van Gogh

The Church at Auvers – Vincent van Gogh

Now I understand

What you tried to say to me

And how you suffered for your sanity

And how you tried to set them free

(from Vincent by Don McLean)

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Vincent, Vincent, you had so much to say to us. You still do.

About how we interpret the world, and people, around us. About beauty in ordinary things and ordinary people.

About aesthetics, acceptance and appreciation.

You epitomised the paradoxical inspiration, distress and stigma of what we think of as mental illness, and its overlap with genius.

Your life and your work spoke of love, and life – and of those times when life seems too hard to bear.

And also of church, and of love for God…

You had a passion to serve Christ and present him to the world, through ministry, and then through nature and art.

You resolutely followed Jesus and, like the rest of us, you stumbled.

You were rejected by the church, became disillusioned with religion, but never lost your love for God.

I wish they would only take me as I am,” you said in a letter to Theo, your brother.

I wonder what you had in mind when you painted The Church at Auvers just weeks before your premature death, aged just 37?

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The Church at Auvers – Vincent van Gogh

Two paths diverging from one – perhaps you were contemplating a choice between life and death? As you poignantly commented, “Dying is hard, but living is harder still.”

What a shocking statement on a life of such grace and genius, which today gives so much joy and inspiration to people the world over.

If you’d had the benefit of foresight, if you’d been able to predict the love and adulation awarded you posthumously, would it have made any difference to your decision to take your life? I don’t know. But we can learn from your suicide, to show our love, acceptance and appreciation of others who today might be living with mental distress.

A veiled image of your face blended into the walls of the church – did you still recognise the inevitable, inseparable union of your life not only with Christ but also with that of the church, despite its rejection of you?

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 (For more information, see: Every Painter Paints Himself)

Some of us, too, who have been drawn to Jesus and have a strong sense of indivduality, have sometimes wondered where we fit into the church, yet have come to know that our home is always somewhere in God’s family and that we find Christ there, even amongst the imperfections of his people, whose fallibility we of course share.

When you decided to re-interpret the Auvers Church with those wavy, curvy lines, depicting the building as an organic, living being – were you perhaps expressing your inner longing for a vibrant church with stretchy borders? An organic body flexible enough to accept every kind of person, instead of the harsh institution that you’d encountered with its rigid borderlines?

“Let them talk, those cold theologians,” you wrote.

And the woman whom you painted walking on the path – was she heading for the church’s entrance? Did she represent your inner desire to return to church, which sadly by now had become for you a place of cold foreboding instead of warm welcome?

Did you perhaps, like me, tussle between your keen individualism and your need to be part of the church that represented the God whom you loved and served? Did the church insist on a conformity, even uniformity, that Jesus never even suggested to his fisherman and sex worker friends, and which threatened to crush your God-given identity?

I wonder if you discovered that, despite all of that, you still needed the church, and that it needed you, whether the church knew it or not?

It seems that you never got over the church’s inflexibility that you’d experienced. Perhaps you were never given the opportunity to. For that I’m truly sad.

As for me – well, like you, Vincent, I’m learning to be myself, and to express my faith according to the unique, individual person that God’s made me to be.

I’m also very grateful for the flexible, inclusive church that I’m part of and which gives me hope for those people represented by Hozier, for people like me, and even for someone as beautiful as you, Vincent.

“They would not listen, they did not know how

Perhaps they’ll listen now.”

(from Vincent by Don McLean)

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5 EASY STEPS TO WHOLENESS

For all you less-than-perfect people out there, here are the only 5 easy steps you’ll ever need to know, to attain inner healing and wholeness.

Just kidding, of course. I’m not into trite formulas, Buzzfeed lists or three-point sermons that deny the complex realities of people’s lives.

There are no easy steps to wholeness or perfection, and any self-help psychology that says otherwise is blatantly blagging.

When it comes to character development and healing from our mental distress, perfection is not an option and the process can be long and arduous, with two steps forward, one step back. Such is life.

In the world of mental health and addiction, the ‘recovery model’ accepts this reality. ‘Recovery’ in this context does not necessarily refer to the process of complete recovery from a mental health problem or addiction in the sense that we might recover from a physical health problem.

For many people, the concept of recovery is about developing resilience in the face of difficulties and setbacks, about managing their lives in spite of an ongoing mental health problem or addiction, rather than simply treating or managing symptoms.

Like a silver thread through the plethora of recovery definitions runs a common theme of hope – the belief that it is possible to regain a meaningful life despite serious mental illness. Recovery is viewed as a conceptual framework, a guiding principle, a journey rather than a destination.

Recovery takes an optimistic, positive and holistic view of individuals with their own goals and aspirations, rather than focussing on the mental health problem or addiction. It may involve living with the problem rather than eradicating it.

Recovery bears interesting similarities to – and differences from – ‘salvation’.

This concept, inherited by Christianity from its Jewish roots, is about being rescued from our oppressors and captors, whether they be physical persecutors (in the Old Testament) or the addictions, selfish habits, and emotional and physical sicknesses that enslave us.

Salvation is health, healing and wholeness of mind, body and spirit. When the Messiah is named ‘Jesus’, meaning ‘Saviour’, God is telling the world: “Here is your salvation, here is the One who can lead you to health, healing and wholeness. Here is good news for the whole world!”

I was recently meditating on the book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet known for having a whale of a time. Funny, but the Old Testament books with the strongest mythical quality about them, that read as more legend than history, seem to be the ones richest in allegory and meaning, telling us significant things about God and human nature. The Jews had a rich culture of story-telling, for good reason – something we would do well to learn from.

Anyway, deep in the belly of this probably-mythical big fish or whale, whatever it was, Jonah praises his God for rescuing him before it even happens, stating in faith:

“…my salvation comes from Yahweh (God) alone.”

Jonah was messed up, full of resentment and self-interest. And he was still trapped in the fish. So in what sense was God his salvation?

Here’s where salvation and recovery coincide. It’s the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ that we Christians often refer to. Salvation is now and in the future.

Jonah was indeed rescued from his physical circumstances in the fish. But by the end of the book, we’re still left waiting to see whether he’s going to be rescued from his inner resentment and self-centredness. Like recovery, salvation was, for Jonah, a journey.

I was ‘saved’ in 1987: rescued from a life of confusion, hopelessness and meaningless hedonism; rescued from my own utter self-centredness; rescued from the insecurity of my past; but most of all, rescued from a life of not knowing the love of Father God – and therefore rescued forever from loneliness and aloneness. I’ve experienced amazing salvation.

But of course it’s also a journey. There are difficulties I still face inside me – attitudes and addictions – which one day will be overcome, because salvation is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. Like in the recovery model, I’m learning to some extent to live with some of those struggles.

However, I believe there is at least one important difference between recovery and salvation.

Jonah hits the nail on the head when he says that his salvation comes from Yahweh alone. I believe that all recovery, all healing, comes from God, whether people acknowledge him as the source or not. I wrote in Mindfulness: More Than Fringe Benefits about the transcendent, all-pervasive nature of God and his love in this world, as revealed through the name YHWH or Yahweh (‘I Am’) to the ancient people of Israel, and then ultimately through Jesus, the Rescuer.

And yet, it seems that those who acknowledge Jesus as their Saviour and place their trust in him experience a kind of healing or recovery unlike any other.

Often radical transformation. Always from the inside out – an inner revolution that happens deep within those who put their faith in him. A change of heart, that starts inside and ripples outwards. Certainly that’s been my experience and that of many others who claim to have a relationship with this Saviour.

For example, I recently met some amazing people from a Christian rehab called Betel. These 3 individuals had all lived under the cruel dictatorship of drug and alcohol addiction with its accompanying violence, abuse and homelessness. Now they are transformed people, living stable lives that glow with love and with liberty from the deep roots of addiction.

For them, recovery and salvation will still be a journey, but they have found extreme power to change.

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We Christians make some astounding claims! One of these is that our lives are somehow, spiritually, tied up with Jesus’ death and resurrection….

…that his suffering and death was in our place, for our healing, as the ancient prophet Isaiah (ch. 53) predicted:

“He was beaten so we could be whole.

He was whipped so we could be healed”.

…and that because he overcame death, we who live in union with him can overcome all our inner struggles: partly in this life; ultimately, completely, in the next. It’s now and not yet.

What about salvation being a rescue plan from future hell? Hmm, maybe. What I do know is that Jesus was and is very much concerned with saving people from the hellish elements of this life – not always from circumstances but definitely from the flames of resentment, fear, shame, addiction and mental distress, replacing these fiery elements with experiential love and acceptance, so that we can face our present circumstances and future uncertainties with greater confidence.

As the wonderful Christian Aid slogan goes, “We believe in life before death.”

As someone who works with people with complex needs and is acutely aware of my own struggles, I like the recovery model a lot. Sometimes we need to accept our difficulties and weaknesses and learn how best to live with them. And we need the humanistic hope that this concept offers.

I love the way of salvation – the death and resurrection of Jesus – even better. Because in this is, for me, a source of real hope, a powerful potential for change. Perhaps you believe this too. If not, perhaps you’d give it some more thought?

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(“You Alone Can Rescue” by Matt Redman eloquently expresses this hope.)

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Please feel free to comment below! Thanks,

Roger Nuttall

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