After the fire came a gentle whisper

Published on: 1 September 2017

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, forgive our foolish ways; these words open a hymn that begins softly but builds to the tremendous crescendo of the final verse where we confront earthquake, wind and fire only to find God in the still small voice of calm.

That final verse is a reference back to Elijah in 1 Kings: 18 & 19, where following the defeat of the prophets of Baal he experiences a personal crisis of faith and health.

Elijah’s crisis involves him abandoning all help and hope and running into the wilderness. In his anxiety and fear all he can hope for is death. While it would be wrong to try to make any sort of diagnosis within the categories of modern psychiatry, we can say that Elijah had an episode of very poor mental health, probably in reaction to a situation where he had been under considerable strain and increasing isolation.

This is a story with paradox written into it. Elijah had seen off the threat of the religious alternative that the prophets of Baal provided, only to collapse at the more personal threat that came from Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah shows that he can speak for a whole people but he cannot manage to care for himself. Elijah defeats the prophets with fire, but it is not in fire or anything so grand that he finally hears God’s voice. Elijah proudly proclaims his faithful isolation to God only to be shown that he is wrong, and that others are alongside him.

In all of this God deals with Elijah with great care, patience and tenderness. He is allowed to dash off into the desert, but his needs for food and sleep are met. He is allowed to express all the rage and despair that he has inside and then God speaks to him in the quiet. He is rested, and restored into his ministry in a more viable way.

We can struggle as Christians to acknowledge our mental health needs. We can feel that we should, like Elijah, be leading a victorious life, where the glory of God is manifest and the presence of God is unshakeable. The reality is that few Christians live like that all the time and many Christians experience episodes of poor mental health. An even more uncomfortable reality, but one reflected in the Elijah story, is that the exercise of Christian ministry can make us vulnerable to mental health problems.

God’s concern is demonstrated in the way that Elijah is treated once his crisis has come upon him. It is a mixture of attending to his physical needs, listening to him without judgment, providing a safe space for him and resourcing him to go back into the world he has fled from.

Our foolish ways don’t necessarily need forgiveness, that implies judgement which in the case of health is inappropriate. Rather let’s model the openness, kindness, restoration and wisdom shown in God’s care for Elijah.

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Priest in the night

Dialling 999 here gets you in touch with our police, ambulance or fire services. There is a very different approach in Sweden. Phone their national emergency number 112 at night-time and you are also given the option to speak to a priest on duty from the Church of Sweden. Canon pastor of the cathedral of Stockholm, Ulf Lindgren, has spent many nights on the helpline.


Churches can provide mental health friendly communities

Emilie Ruddick, mental health professional in North Norfolk explains how churches are stepping up to support their local communities.


Recovering friendly church – join the conversation

The Revd Patrick Jordan extends an invitation to join a new network in the diocese discovering how we can practically approach the issue of mental health illness and wellbeing in our local communities.


Hearing Voices – sharing experiences of struggles with mental health

Hearing Voices is a forum organised between Norwich cathedral with the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust and the Hertfordshire Partnership Foundation Trust where people can come and share their struggles with mental health.


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