‘I feel like I’m lost in the desert … just wandering around. And I’m trying so hard to get out of it but wherever I walk its relentless, like the heat of the sun beating down on me never lets up, and I feel like all I can find is just sand and nowhere I look is there any sign of hope or relief.’

Those are the words spoken to me recently by someone struggling with a long term battle against anxiety and depression. Its a common story - but they expressed so eloquently how it feels - that long tough struggle against what can feel like overwhelmingly negative odds, the relentless nature of the battles they face, their grief for the life they seem to have lost for ever, the constant drain of hopelessness and above all that increasing yearning for relief. 

Working or caring for those in distress you will encounter many stories like this one - many people who are caught in their own physical or emotional deserts. When our emotional health falters, we can feel plunged into a place which is very dry - emotionally, spiritually and relationally, as we lose many of the normal social parts of our life. Getting out of the house can become much more difficult, going to church may feel impossible and even connecting and talking with close friends too hard. And the longer that goes on the stronger the yearning becomes - the inner desire or desperate need for so many things - relief from the physical or emotional pain, hope that there will be one day an end to this suffering, chances to explain or feel a connection with someone who understands.

So how can we bring something meaningful to people in these situations? Specifically as the church, particularly in our perhaps more formal pastoral care, what can we do and what can we bring to people desperately thirsty and caught in desert times? 

The imagery of deserts and thirst are ones which are used frequently in the bible, often to refer to our spiritual needs. Many people in the Bible spend time in literal deserts - and the metaphor is clear as these are times of wandering, discovery and challenge. In the desert place we are stripped down to the basics - the bare foundation of what we rely on - when all else is gone, what do we cling to to survive? Deserts reveal the reality that underlies who we are, and its important to note the strength of those who have endured the desert for many years. It takes real guts and strength of character to survive there. 

The Bible also gives those of us who care for people metaphors which relate to the desert. ‘Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.’ says Isaiah 32:2 with a wonderful imagery of how our pastoral care can bring moments of relief and refreshment to those facing the relentless battering of the desert day in and day out. 

But perhaps one of the strongest images that comes to my mind is one that speaks of that so powerful metaphor of thirst. It comes in John 7:37-38. I was reminded of this listening to Nicky Gumbel speak on the Holy Trinity Brompton podcast on ‘The connectivity code’. Here Jesus has been at teaching at a jewish festival and this occurs on the last day. John tells us he suddenly stands up and declares in a loud voice ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37-38 NIV).

In this verse Jesus talks of two important relationships - and this is really on topic as this week for Mental Health Awareness Week the focus is on how relationships can help our mental health and the mental health of those we are in relationship with. 

Firstly Jesus talks of our relationship with Him:  ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.’  Now we know that Jesus shouted this out - literally the word used here describes a scream - a cry. This was from Jesus’ heart! You can almost imagine that he looked around and saw people so in need. What he says here was a response to something he saw in people around him - thirst and yearning. So he calls - come to me! God longs to bring us relief from our pain - spiritual, physical and emotional. And we know that a life rooted in God divides us a connection we can rely on when everything else falls apart. As Hebrew 6:19 says, ‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.’ 

All that is very well, but anyone who has experienced desert times will know that even that anchor can start to feel a bit tenuous after a while. When we feel like the pressure and pain upon us is such that we might break, we can become painfully aware that our connection to God is the only thing holding us - and when the power of our own emotions makes it hard to perceive God’s presence, we feel in a very risky and insecure place. And here comes into play the second relationship Jesus talks about: ‘Whoever believes in me…rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ When we connect with God, not only do we form a relationship that supports and quenches our thirst, something else happens that affects those we are then in relationship with - because streams of living water flow from within us. Literally Jesus talks about water flowing from our ‘inmost being’ - from the centre of who we are, from our core.  As a result of our relationship with God, we can connect other people we are in relationship with to the same thing that quenches our own thirst. 

So how does this influence our care for people caught in desperate times? It reminds us that the most useful thing we bring is not about clever words, amazing treatments or even practical support - though all those things can be useful. Instead the most significant thing we bring is our relationship with a person - our friendship, and through that, the connection with the living God who alone truly satisfy people’s core, inmost needs. I’ve been reminded recently of Psalm 147:3 and who exactly it is who heals the brokenhearted people we support (clue: it isn’t us!).

Many times I have discussed with professionals how the nature of the relationship we have with people in pastoral care differs from the clean boundaries of a clinical therapeutic relationship. As pastoral carers or church leaders we are much more to people than ‘just’ professionals. We see them not just in the rough spots but throughout their lives - ups and downs, highs and lows. We share their lives and journeys. We form, in fact, friendships. Not the same kind of friendships that we would form with our mates - and we always need to be aware of this and keep good boundaries - but friendships all the same (i wrote more about this many years ago in my article ‘working in the grey areas’ - and there’s also more about the boundaries involved in pastoral care here). There is a strength - a power in what we do precisely because of the nature of the relationship we have - but its important we understand that power it isn’t because of what we do but because of who we ourselves are connected to. We have relationship with God, and so God can flow through us to those who are most in need. We take, when we visit them not just ourselves, and cake or flowers, but something of the spirit of God - and its from there that the real power comes.

In this week where so many are focusing on mental health, let’s take a moment to ponder not just our relationships with people we are caring for but our own relationship with the God who cares for us all. As Paul writes: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Cor 1:3-4 NIV). 

Our strength - and the comfort we bring to others - stems from our own relationship with God, so we must prioritise this. But we need also to recognise the significance of the relationships we then have with people who are so in need. Lets pray that we can indeed bring water to those who thirst, relief to those who yearn for it, shelter to those caught in the relentless beating of a brutal sun and ultimately healing and hope to those for whom human cleverness often seems to offer little.    

Kate Middleton, 19/05/2016
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