Ministry of the word from The Campfire Church on Facebook today. Tony Collins.
The Cultivation of Shalom - Campfire Church, 17th January 2021
Today I want to speak about wellbeing, which is one of the possible meanings of the Hebrew word Shalom. Other translations are peace, harmony, wholeness, healing, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility.
The headlines in the UK have been filled with the fallout from events in Washington. I am afraid there are likely to be violent clashes around the United States over the course of the next few days. When one of the world’s largest and most deeply-rooted democracies can tear itself apart like this, it fills us with dismay. This is just one expression of a profound disturbance that is happening around the globe. Between COVID, Brexit, the political convulsions in America, climate change and the progressive extinctions of the natural world, we are a race deeply in need of wellbeing.
We are interlinked. COVID has driven this home. The latest studies on COVID transmission suggest that it is being spread by aerosol, not by droplets. Droplets spread relatively short distances, which is why the six-foot rule was introduced. Aerosol transmission is very similar, but with vastly smaller particles which travel far greater distances: cigarette smoke is an aerosol, and think how easy it is to be aware, from many yards away, if someone has been smoking. This basically means that we really, really have to stay in our bubble.
The problems we face are not just viruses. Bad ideas are also contagious. Think how quickly a superficially plausible concept – such as irresponsible ‘covidiots’, for example, who ignore the dangers of infection – can take root in public discourse and be given headline treatment by both politicians and the popular media. However, recent studies have shown that those who break the COVID restrictions – a very few – are overwhelmingly the marginalised and desperate. Be very cautious about clickbait headlines. Remember that the objective of newspapers is to sell newspapers. And, since a lot of media input is tailored to your perceived preferences, ask yourself, what am I not being told?
Because we are interlinked, our mental health, or its lack, is also contagious. Most of us live in family groups. Think how swiftly the depression or unhappiness of one individual affects the whole. We all need to be alert to our own mental wellbeing. As the saying goes, ‘If you don’t heal what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people who didn’t cut you.’
We are interlinked, perhaps most profoundly of all, in that we are all inhabitants of the same planet. A recent report from Frontiers in Conservation Science identifies three threats we all face: biodiversity loss; population growth; and climate disruption, all compounded by political impotence. The authors call for fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality, and the abolition of perpetual economic growth. The challenge, as they describe it, is not what to do – there is no shortage of good ideas and sound advice – but how.
Let’s take a step back. The whole Christian enterprise is concerned with wellbeing. Our faith puts forward the thesis that the peoples of the earth are sick: alienated from their Maker and the world He has made. There is a fundamental breakdown in relations both with our God and with our neighbour. Into the breach has stepped Jesus, our Saviour, who by his sacrifice and by his example has opened the way back home.
This morning I want to explore, in two different arenas, what the way back home might look like.
First, I’d like to explore how to restore and maintain wellbeing as individuals. I am indebted to a recent book by Dave Smith, called Wellbeing, for some of these ideas.
A Christian psychologist, Dr Henry Cloud, has spoken, in the context of the pandemic, about how to maintain personal equilibrium. Dr Cloud offers the thought that for many of us, faced with turbulence on so many fronts, the key issue is one of security. He suggests that as part of getting a grip on things is to make two lists, one featuring the things we can’t control, and a second listing those we can.
The first list might include: How long lockdown will last; What’s happening in Washington and Westminster; Brexit; Climate change; Accidents; Ageing; The macro economy.
The second list might include: Thought life; Relationships; Work; Personal behaviour; Personal economy; Use of resources; Your skill set; Diet.
Obviously the two lists overlap. But it is helpful to identify the limits of your accountability, and the matters which you can pray about, but over which you have no control. Each of us has only so much bandwidth, so much energy and so much prayer time. In terms of your mental health, and your effectiveness in the world, it is surely wiser to spend your capital where you can make the greatest difference.
But how, on a daily basis, do you find sources of cheerfulness? I have three suggestions to offer.
First, remind yourself that not all the news is bad. The natural world will bounce back in remarkably short order if we just give her a chance. Just look at footage of the way that, in the space of only 35 years, animals and birds have repopulated the area around Chernobyl. I’ve included a link in the transcript of this sermon*. It is incumbent upon us all to learn how to live well, but remember that God designed the Earth to be resilient.
Second, draw upon the strength offered by the Almighty. Stephen kindly read Psalm 91 for us today, which is one of the most comforting of the canon, but we might have turned to Psalm 139, or Psalm 23. From Psalm 91 I cherish the idea that my God is a refuge and a fortress. We are constructed to worship God and enjoy his presence; it’s in our DNA. When we offer praise to God something is reset within us, something slots back into its groove. As an example, many years ago I was given the gift of tongues, but I am shy about using it. Then I discovered that when mowing the grass I could pray or even sing in tongues, though things went badly wrong if I tried to close my eyes. When I speak in tongues, my spirit expands and things look better. In terms of wellbeing, worship can offer a way back home. It affirms who we are in Christ, and I’ll say more about this at the end.
Third, allow yourself treats. Schedule a moment or two each morning and afternoon to do, read, or watch something that amuses or comforts you. For me the mind candy of choice is fiction, especially science fiction. Ever since I can remember I have been hooked by narrative, and a good story consoles and boosts the spirits. Treats matter, so go for a walk, or listen to a favourite piece of music. Phone a friend.
Private wellbeing is vital, but we also need a way to rediscover public wellbeing. I am thinking here about political or social wellness. Christians will always hold different political views, and that is reasonable. But how should we seek to debate, with intelligence, care, and without rancour? Some decades ago I trained as a missionary, and studied Islam, Hinduism and other world faiths. An admonition from one of our tutors has stayed with me. ‘Always look,’ he said, ‘for the best in those of other faiths, and when you reach out to them in Christ, strive to keep in mind the most noble and praiseworthy aspects of their religion.’
We need the same kind of respect if we are going to heal our broken body politic. We have to allow people space to listen, and to speak, without betrayal. How do you build trust? A friend this week drew my attention to the Charlie Brown cartoons. You will remember that a regular feature of the Peanuts strip is when Lucy promises to hold the ball steady so that Charlie Brown can kick it, but every time she whips it away so that he lands flat on his back. Charlie Brown never learns, but repeated betrayals of this kind will poison political and social dialogue. Neither left nor right has a monopoly on broken promises. If we are going to heal, we need to re-establish trust.
One way forward is to be appropriately sceptical about your own sources of information. Those sneaky algorithms determine that the news you see is the news you like, so be especially suspicious of stories that confirm your opinion. One of the most durable cries of the last few years has been ‘fake news’, and fake news can come from both left and right. Fortunately, there are places where you can find reliable information. I particularly recommend the Snopes website if you want to check your facts.
None of this is at all easy. Trust has to be earned, as does wisdom. This means courage, and persistence, and a willingness to listen. We need to move beyond the partisanship of blinkered patriotism. Jeremy Corbyn put it this way, ‘Patriotism is about supporting each other, not attacking somebody else. It’s about loving your country enough to make it a place where nobody is homeless or hungry, held back or left behind.’
As COVID has shown us very clearly, we are all members of the same group. If I can be permitted to update John F Kennedy, ‘Don’t ask what your planet can do for you, ask what you can do for your planet.’
Let me conclude with some biblical statements about who we are in Christ, which have always given me a thrill. (I first came across a collection of these in Neil Anderson’s Victory Over the Darkness, and a shorter list appears in Dave Smith’s Wellbeing). These statements are simple, and will no doubt be familiar to you, but when I read them it always boosts my spirits. Here is a selection, and in the transcript I have provided the biblical references.
I affirm that in Christ:
I belong to God (Romans 14: 7-8)
I am personally chosen by God (John 15: 16)
I am saved by God’s amazing grace (Ephesians 2: 8-9)
I am adopted into God’s family (Romans 8: 15-17)
I am a new creation (2 Corinthians 5: 17)
I am deeply and unconditionally loved by God (Romans 8: 38-9)
In the name of Christ, Amen.