“If I have learned anything from journeying through this content, … it is the importance of us as leaders ensuring that we ‘travel light’, by grieving well.“Luke Harper.
With emotional health, (including grief and loss) being so central to our corporate experience of the last eighteen months, there is a new appetite to reclaim concepts like these, for the church, in an effort to apply what we see in scripture, to our everyday lives. Common Ground Church, a family of churches in Cape Town, who preach collaboratively, recently embarked on a Sunday series looking at “Emotional Health”. We asked Luke Harper, who lead the charge on content creation, for some insights on their journey. Here is what he had to say:
“We can do a lot of really good discipleship activities, like reading the Bible, regular church participation, practicing simplicity, giving generously, etc. yet, we can harbour deep hurts, destructive habits, and hang-ups from the past that we don’t face.”
In many ways, you could say we stumbled into this series. After making changes to our preaching calendar due to COVID and online church, we were looking for something to fill a gap in August. Over the last 18 months, we’ve all had to process so much trauma, loss and change. All over the world, emotional health has been adversely affected. It was fortuitous that a few of us were reading Pete Scazzero’s book; Emotionally Healthy Discipleship. He lays a brilliant foundation for a discipleship culture that builds emotionally mature Christ-followers.
It became apparent that what I was discipled into in my early years of church leadership was closer to stoicism, than emotional health. In some ways, as a leader, I felt I had to be strong for others, especially in a moment like the global crisis we’re in currently. In wanting to be a pillar for others, we’re vulnerable to stoicism or even ‘Christian escapism’ when stoicism fails. By ‘Christian escapism’ I mean, in those moments where we feel overwhelmed, we reach for a distraction from the pain or pressure. Whatever it takes to make it go away – even in the form of ‘good Christian things’ like listening to a feel-good worship playlist, or an uplifting positive sermon or going for a run. But what I wasn’t doing was facing my emotions and pain head-on, grappling with what I was feeling, and honestly processing why I am feeling that way. Only then could I honestly be with God and others so as to receive grace to sustain me and empower me.
Ignoring the emotional state of our being is like ignoring the warning lights on the dashboard of your car. They indicate to us when something is wrong inside. It can feel easier to push aside and get on with the job. But then you go through two years as we’ve just been through, and pushing aside can’t cut it anymore. This cycle of ‘carry on, keep positive, focus on the task’, where we press on without ever slowing down to really process trauma and losses we’ve all faced is how we end up accumulating ‘un-health’ in our souls. These things don’t go away. They have a way of staying with us, sometimes in the form of anxiety or tension in our bodies, struggling to sleep or to concentrate. For some it’s feeling angst to open your emails, wondering if there is more bad news of finances down again this month, or maybe another couple left the church or other painful to process information. This undealt with emotional state is a risky place to stay.
We can do a lot of really good discipleship activities, like reading the Bible, regular church participation, practising simplicity, giving generously, etc. yet, we harbour deep hurts, destructive habits, and hangups from the past that we don’t face. This is why, as Pete says in his book, you can be a gifted speaker for God in public, and be a detached spouse at home, or an angry parent. You can quote the Bible with ease and yet still be incredibly reactive to other people or avoid conflict and tough, but needed conversations. This is not the life or character we are called to as ones who follow Jesus.
“When we look at the Scriptures we see a far better way than stoicism or escapism.”
When we look at the Scriptures we see a far better way than stoicism or escapism. Jesus himself models a mature way of working through our emotions. Think of Jesus in the Garden (Matthew 26). I’d never preached this passage from the perspective of what we can learn from Christ in the midst of a difficult crisis. But seeing Matthew 26 through fresh eyes, we see a Jesus who is ‘sorrowful and troubled’ yet presses into the presence of God in that state. Not rushing for a feel-good verse or triumphant chorus; Jesus, being with His Father as He is, seeking Him for grace. He’s ‘overwhelmed to the point of death’ yet remains within earshot of his closest companions. He doesn’t withdraw, so as to not make His followers insecure. In learning from the ‘way’ of Jesus, we see Him modelling to us what it looks like to be an emotionally mature person. We can learn how to process our grief and our pain and even angst about a difficult future.
Looking to the Psalms, more than half of them are unfiltered, honest laments. Yet, these were the songs that made up much of the worship for Old Testament believers. In fact, we come from a long line of believers who know what it is to process their pain in community and in the presence of God. People who knew how to walk through things without denying them, or escaping them, but facing them in maturity.
For us, we took five weeks to work through some of Pete Scazerro’s principles on emotional maturity. We called the series ‘Becoming Emotionally Mature’ and really, we just began to scratch the surface. We’re not kidding ourselves thinking we’ve changed the culture, but we’ve begun a journey. A journey that is helping us as Christ-followers go beneath the surface of our lives and inviting God to work there as he makes us more like Christ. As we become more like him, we are better able to love others in their places of pain and weakness. For us as preachers and leaders, God certainly used this in our own hearts and lives. Emotional health has been a blindspot for me personally in my life, and that’s probably why I missed it in the scriptures for so long.
If I have learned anything from journeying through this content, in our own preparation and our preaching, it is the importance of us as leaders ensuring that we ‘travel light’, by grieving well. We want to be leading long-term in Jesus’ church, this means we’ve got to tend to our souls, lest we become casualties too.
You can take a look at some of Pete Scazzero’s best resources here.
Take a look at what shape this above-mentioned preaching series ended up taking – click here to visit Common Ground’s website.