Friday, 28 October 2016

Being churches in community

Following a conversation on a Facebook group about this blogpost I am responding to this challenge   
‘The blog post is about one way to build relationships in the community; I would love to see a UK Methodist brainstorm on other ways to move from our internally-focused condition toward an externally-focused one.

I write as some-one who has been involved as a district mission enabler, now as a minister working in rural and semi-rural churches, and in my reading about and observations of others doing interesting projects.

Firstly – don’t assume that because the only thing in the church notices is next week’s preacher that this means mission and community engagement is not happening.  In some communities you will find that the church people are already deeply engaged with voluntary groups and the work that keeps the village flourishing.  Even if not overtly sharing their faith story they are recognised as faith led people.

When I was a mission enabler I found that people were anxious about inviting me to work with their church. They have a sense of falling short of what the church is called to and fear being told to do things that terrify them or feel impossible. Starting from affirming what is already there is critical to ease the anxiety.  Then I would nudge them about how to develop from what is already there.  We can be very good a service and struggle with talking about faith and life matters.  You don’t turn the existing lunch club or coffee morning into a Bible study, but offer a prayer corner, or invite people to stay on for a small reflection or service, always optional, but giving attenders small steps into considering faith, rather than expecting the huge leap into Sunday morning. And the small steps feel doable for the church and as they do the small steps they are encouraged to relearn how to dream and do.

So ways of engaging with the community I have known and seen in the British context –

1.    Primary schools – are often open to church volunteers in assemblies, a resource such as Open The Book makes it predictable for head teachers, and very accessible for a local team of volunteers, and the children love it.    Relationships can develop with volunteers listening to reading, helping as extra adults on trips, schools taking part in church events, contributing to the Christmas Tree Festival, older pupils helping with a lunch club at church, choir at carol service…

2.     Local businesses – get involved with the local chamber of trade, or business association.  The church is not a business but these groups offer insights into issues in the local economy. They are often involved in local community events, get a pitch at things that are happening and provide volunteers for all the work that is needed to make them happen.   From those relationships other opportunities are possible….  
Eg  Promoting the Christmas story in the community – some have sent ‘Mary and Joseph’ figures on a journey from shop to shop sitting in the display window for a day then moving to the next shop, people are encouraged to watch out for where they will turn up next.  Others have sheep or angels scattered around the town that can be tracked down.   Some churches have taken temporary shops at Christmas and Easter as a pastoral base and opportunity to have displays around our faith.

3.       Offer space to fill gaps as local provision is cut – a library link collecting books from the next town to run a monthly library at the village coffee morning when the mobile service was cut, hosting books for a voluntary provision when the branch library closed.  Some places go into the deep technicalities and legalities to host post office and village shop.

4.       Offer opportunities to talk about the ‘big issues’ people face – without making it all religious.  Death cafĂ© events, Happiness Course, Agnostics Anonymous, drawing on film and books in conversation groups.  Be a safe space for meaningful conversation without being conversion focussed.  We are companions on a journey and the other person leads about when, if ever, the conversation turns to faith. 

6.    Street Pastors and Street Angels do great work in many communities linking with the police 

And that is before considering ways of worshipping in more creative ways to enable those of different learning styles, ages, interests - Messy Church, Forest Church, Cafe Church, and so many more.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Two weeks in - low carb low calorie eating plan

So - the healthy eating/diet plan - just over 2 weeks in and mostly good with a bit of a wobble.   

I am following the Blood Sugar Diet (see here) and it sounds scary to be based on 800 calories for the 8 weeks. But those are nutrient rich and diverse calories, with good levels of protein and full fat product (but not massive amounts like the Atkins).  

There is a great online community on the website, sharing recipes, encouragement and also our confessions when we succumb to the sugar fix.  

So how has it been?
Well started with enthusiasm and lots of planning. Expected to feel deprived and hungry but with a commitment to 3 separate meals and those including protein - scrambled egg for breakfast - I was not feeling hungry until I broke rank at the weekend - the reduced price cheesecake, and the idea of a reward were my downfall.  After that - not just a single slice - it is like my sugar cravings were reawakened.  But it was different, it felt too much and too sickly, so my body is learning something.

One of my tricks on myself to avoid the baggage that too familiar numbers can bring is to measure myself in kgs - starting at 99kgs which for my height put me jut in the obese category for my BMI.  After 2 weeks I reached 94.5kg - and have just crossed back into 'overweight', not obese. A great first target. - but 15kg still needed, the weight of a sack of dog food.

Lost so far......
What I still need to lose

There may be some concern about a quick loss diet  but the science does consider this.  A lot of crash diets are focused on single items - cabbage soup, maple syrup - this one has a wide nutrient base, and is designed as a kickstart for a healthy eating habit, higher calories but same principles.  And it is missing the side effects of cabbage soup!

Shopping is quicker and cheaper - with all the aisles I am not supposed to go down, and the cakes and biscuits left behind on the shelves. I have been buying fresh fish, sometimes complete with heads (though gutted at least) and spinach is a staple.

So I will see where the next month takes me, and hopefully reach the autumn as less of a woman. Gabi dog though is a bit miffed and feels hard done by as my lack of snacking means a lack of titbits for her!

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Weight and depression - time for a healthy diet

I am munching my way through my last packet of crisps before the Healthy Eating weight loss diet starts in 2 days on 1st August.  Getting breathless walking Gabi this summer has got me worried.  I have been on blood pressure meds for 2 years already, and I’m only 41.   My BMI is no longer in the overweight category but I have crossed the line into obese.   I need to lose 20% of my current weight to reach the top end of the healthy range for my height.  

Image result for bmi chartThis is partly linked to my mental health.  A lot of mental health medication can encourage weight gain, mostly I think from giving us the major munchies, though some may affect metabolism too.  I also spent time on one that has a side effect on blood pressure.   But it is not all the medication.

Depression can be exhausting, acting ‘normal’ in the big wide world means coming home and flopping out. For me that puts meal prep way way down the ‘to do’ list, whilst duvet time is right at the top.  Of course at some stage my body demands input, and Now!  

That means quick calories and no effort.  So surface from duvet and reach the kitchen, problem is that making a decision is as much of an effort as anything else and I am left standing in the middle of a supply of food but paralysed by the decision process.  Default kicks in and I reach for the instant calories of a packet of oaty biscuits, or crisps, or anything instant, and retreat with the packet back to the duvet and munch, and munch, through the whole packet.

That isn’t every meal, or every day – but far too frequently, and in between are the ready meals or that sole meal of the day turns into eating both portions of the meal for two.  Basically my eating is rubbish and all over the place, and that’s before alcohol calories.

Image result for healthy mealsSo 1st Aug is the new beginning, I have been researching, I have produced a 4 week menu plan so that the effort of choice is taken away, and I have been shopping – with a strict list!   I had a trolley full of veg and fresh fish, some chicken and not much else – no biscuits, no doughnuts, no multipacks of crisps.

The discipline will be to eat at 3 specific points each day, the diet is low in carb and limited calories but full of healthy nutrients.  Yes it is a low calorie – quick impact diet but not in a faddish cabbage soup diet way.   I know my stickability to a new project is not great once the novelty wears off, so something that feels like it is getting somewhere is better for me.   And to start with a mild obsessio
n about the healthy eating project is good for getting off the blocks well.

So enjoying the last pack of crisps and last glass of wine for a while, and the church faith lunch tomorrow – then Monday morning I will rediscover proper breakfast.  I will let you know how I do.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Living with pain

I have friends who live with great pain in their bodies, not a mere paracetamol or ibuprofen pain, but the kind that gets offered the strongest pills possible which still only dulls the worst moments.   They don’t talk about the daily pains that often – it is enough to feel it without talking about it too, and they don’t want to bore you or themselves with saying that it hurts every time someone asks ‘how are you?’

I admit to being a wimp over physical pain, and don’t even mention nausea!  What my friends live with as normal would lay me out.  But life has to be lived, and my friends like so many others find a way to keep functioning with these pains.

Image result for pain
If only it were that easy - physically or emotionally
When they do mention how bad a day is – then it is a day when it is not just the permanent ‘normal’ pain (which the rest of us would consider a ‘bad day’) but an extra extra bad day when the meds are not helping much – or at least it feels they aren’t, though how much worse could it be without them? We all experience pain, but they live with it.

To understand depression is a similar distinction – yes we all have low days but to live with depression is to have as a normal what those without the illness know as a really bad day.  We may not tell you how tough living with that emotional pain as daily life is, like my friends finding a way to function with great physical pain, so those of us living with depression find ways to function in the big wide world.   Physical or emotional, you may not glimpse the limp or grimace with a wave of pain, we have got used to not letting it show.  But it costs us – this functioning and blending in.

Image result for empty purseAnd some days the cost is beyond our budget, beyond our energy overdraft limit – then we may say ‘I’m not too good today’. But remember we are likely to be using a completely different scale, so saying ‘I’m having a bad day too’ – unless you are using the same currency as us – is not really understanding.   In the same way as if I were to respond to one of my friends whose body is regularly wracked with extreme pain with the comment ‘yeah? I have a bit of a headache today too’.

I am sure that on a normal day they would be very willing to commiserate with my headache, but I should not be under any illusions that I understand their experience.

So when someone living with depression doesn’t talk about how it feels, don’t assume our normal is your normal.  And when we do say it is a bad day then believe that it is and give us space when functioning is a challenge.

They say that ‘grass is greener on the other side’ – strangely that is not the case here, at least for me, having learned to live with depression it is a housemate (lifemate?) whose habits I have got to know and learned to cope with at some level.  As said I am a wimp about physical pain and so the challenges of friends living with that seem much worse than my own journey. I wonder if they feel the same about depressive pain?

I write this on a functioning day, but where depression is as always lurking in the background, in the hope of helping anyone travelling with someone with depression to understand a bit of the difference in what we say and what that describes.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Being heard - probably Bipolar 2

Finally, I have had a meeting with a psychiatrist that has been willing to discuss past patterns in my mental health, not just how I am in the moment. There is a place for focusing on the now, but that doesn’t help to work out what the long term issues are. When I explained that I had in my previous location been passed from one junior to another as their training rotations shifted, and each with their own views – from the ‘if you are not in debt and sleeping around it cannot be bipolar’, and ‘this mood diary is not relevant as you were abroad’ – he was apologetic about what I had experienced.

We talked about different events in my life, including leading up to my big collapse at theological college.  He validated my view that over productivity, excessive confidence and boundary issues fitted the pattern of hypomania, the times when I am full of energy and ideas but often in a driven way. That can be really creative but not easy for those I am rushing into ideas and who have to slow me or stop me.   I have never thought I have had clinical mania – the sign of Bipolar 1 - but that I fit the patterns of depressions with intermittent hypomania times. I recognised myself in the descriptions I was reading of Bipolar 2 back when I had the inflated idea that a full time job, an illness and a part time PhD was reasonable.

All I have sought is a reasonable conversation with a professional about what resonated with me and how that might impact how I manage my mental health. I have had some medication that matches a bipolar spectrum view but no-one before would discuss things diagnostically.  I respect that technically the psychiatrist needs to witness a high to formally diagnose – ie not just on what I say (in case I am making it up) – but he listened and valued my past experiences and validated my self-recognition.  He agreed that if as I described then it fits the Bipolar 2 model.

I am pleased to have a putative label for my experiences, not because I want that label, but because I felt heard and my understanding of myself was valued.  Having even a ‘maybe/probably’ label is helpful because it enables a realistic conversation of how things can be managed.  But even if the psychiatrist had explained why it was not what I thought, because he valued what I had to say I would respect that view, whereas those who just dismissed my experiences did not have my respect.
It is still a seesaw even if you spend more time down than up 

When, about 7 months after my big collapse at college (I had been sent to a counsellor but no-one had nudged me to the doctor in that time), I went to the GP and was diagnosed as severe depression I came home a tiny weeny bit less low – it was not just me being a failure at being, it was a valid illness.  This appointment has had a similar, though not as desperate, an effect - what I have thought about myself I not imagination, not me trying to make more of a fuss than needed, it has been validated by a professional after a real reflection.

The power of being listened to – an example that we can all follow in our different ways.

Friday, 3 June 2016

To cope or not to cope?

I have started to be involved in a mental health facility – in many ways it is like a care home for those not needing full scale inpatient care but not considered able to cope at home.  The residents are a mix – some I can see as significantly unwell, but others I wonder why they are not under home support.  I have only had a few visits so far and know my observations are based on brief and shallow encounters, I don’t have - and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to have – details of individual situations except what they choose to share as time goes on.  However it makes me wonder about what it is to have mental ill health and to be judged able to cope at home, or not.
Is there a difference about whether you would be home alone or have live-in support? It must be a key issue if you have a spouse or parent to support you then you are not managing the fullness of domestic life alone – bills, shopping, cooking, someone to encourage you out from under the duvet.

I consider this as someone who lives alone, and struggles with mental health.  As someone who in low times struggles to get proper meals and needs Gabi the dog to nag me into getting out. I have the huge privilege to be in a role as a church minister that gives me the freedom to adjust around my moods. And I have come to accept that effectiveness and busyness are not be the same thing, so give myself permission to do the admin on a laptop from under the duvet, and not expect much in the mornings – unless I really need to be somewhere. (I am much more comfortable with evening meetings).

I have days when I can cope with the complications of domestic life, and enough of the role of ministry.  I have days when I am buzzing with ideas and possibilities – a gift but also potentially a symptom, not always being grounded in reality. I have days when my mood is so low that maybe I could be one of those considered not able to cope alone.  If I had not been in a communal college situation when I had my deepest collapse would I have coped in any way – it was enough of a struggle to make it to the dining room to eat food prepared for me.

What does it mean to be one of those who copes? On one level it is positive, it suggests that I am not as unwell as some others. On the other hand it can be an excuse to deny the needs I do have – by services and by myself – pretending I am not unwell when I am.

Coping is about looking like things are okay when in reality every step is both a struggle and an achievement. When getting a shower and putting the mask on for the outside world costs almost all we have – but others see as merely normal. The skilled observer may see the eyes are dead or the responses pre-programmed – but we are skilled at hiding it and the chance encounter at the local shop is brief enough for us to disguise our pain.  Why? Because to get caught in a conversation about how we really feel, and your theories on what will help, that I have to be polite about – that would demand so much more from us.

So back to those deemed to need the care of the unit – whilst glad to be considered not ill enough for that, I do have a certain degree of envy for those who have permission to not cope, who don’t have to pretend or struggle to cope but have aspects of life happen for them.  An odd position it may seem to some, but maybe others will understand my feeling.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

We had hoped - Emmaus Road

My April 'bit' for church newsletters - based on the Emmaus Road Easter story

We had hoped…

On the road to Emmaus the couple walking along tell the stranger what has been happening in Jerusalem and about Jesus’ death, ending with the comment ‘and we had hoped he was the one we were waiting for’.  

It was the Sunday, they had heard the news of the empty tomb – still fresh and unbelievable news, but the confusion of the loss of the hopes they had previously had is still raw. When they started following this Jesus of Nazareth I don’t know what they expected or hoped for but crucifixion was not likely to have been in their thoughts.  So all that had happened had crushed their hopes, even amid rumours of resurrection they say ‘we had hoped….’.

Life and its unexpected events can leave us in situations very different to what we had hoped for or dreamt of. Yes there are different lives we had not considered, even rumours of hope filled lives beyond the difficult times. But we may need space to acknowledge the hopes that have had to be laid by, grief for what might have been is valid, and maybe is needed to help grasp fully what is in its place.

The stranger on the Emmaus Road stays unknown giving them time to tell their story and how they had hoped, gently he opens up their thoughts to new possibilities, and only then in the breaking of bread do they find the resurrected Jesus has been with them.  

God is with us in broken hopes and in learning to hope again.