Practical theologian Rev. Dr. John Swinton talks about faith, mental health, and all the ways in which our culture, particularly Church culture, can exclude those whose voices, whose songs, whose lives don’t fit the “standard format.” He offers up some new ways of seeing in which difference and disability are welcomed, embraced, and understood as a valid way of being fully human and fully alive to the possibilities of God.
Running time: 46:07
About Rev. Dr. John Swinton
John Swinton is the Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy, University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Previously he worked for sixteen years as a registered mental health nurse, and spent several years as a hospital chaplain and community mental health chaplain. He is particularly interested in mental health issues both as they relate to the spiritual dimensions of care offered by religious communities as well as the spiritual care offered by established “secular” mental health services. He has published widely in the fields of disability theology, spirituality and health, and qualitative research and mental health. His book Dementia: Living in the memories of God won the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Ramsey Prize for excellence in theological writing in 2016. He is founder of the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability, where academics, researchers, practitioners, and educators collaborate in the development of innovative projects researching the theology of disability and the relationship between spirituality, health and healing, and contemporary healthcare practices. John is an ordained minister of Church of Scotland.
Mental Health: The Inclusive Church Resource. Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader. Living Well and Dying Faithfully: Christian Practices for End-Of-Life Care. Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness. Raging With Compassion: Pastoral responses to the problem of evil. Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church. Practical Theology and Qualitative Research. Spirituality in Mental Health Care: Rediscovering a “forgotten” dimension. Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the care of people with severe mental health problems. The Spiritual Dimension of Pastoral Care: Practical theology in a multidisciplinary context. From Bedlam to Shalom: Towards a practical theology of human nature.
These are just some of John Swinton’s extensive works on disability, mental health, and faith.
Interview on dementia and faith:
John Swinton: Once you hang around with people who are different, you will become different.
Sarah Kift: “Voices that did comfort me are furthest from my sanity and come from places I have never seen. Even in my darkest recollection, there was someone singing my life back to me.” This verse is from one of my all time favorite songs by Neko Case called “Guided by Wire.” I am often guided by these words when I think about how we need each other to remember who we are, especially in times of crisis, and how to find one’s voice in a world that can stigmatize and oppress people simply for dancing to a different tune. Practical theologian John Swinton is also a champion of difference, a humble and firm advocate for encouraging often stigmatized voices and ways of being to flush out our experience of being human. John graciously sat down with me during a recent teaching visit to Vancouver to talk about faith, mental health, and all the ways in which our culture, particularly Church culture can exclude those whose voices, who songs, whose lives don’t fit the standard format. He offers up some new ways of seeing in which difference and disability are welcomed, embraced, and understood as a valid way of being fully human and fully alive to the possibilities of God.
So John, a lot of your work revolves around ways of seeing and how our culture has certain stories around people with disability. And a lot of what you do is to actually challenge those narratives and those stories and offer people a different way of seeing. So, can you tell me a little bit about when that shifted for you? When did you discover a different way of seeing around disability and mental health?
John Swinton: Yeah, I never consciously did. I wonder that. I mean, for me the reason I see disability in mental health the way I do is because most of my life I’ve been with people who look at the world in very, very different ways. You know, people with psychotic experiences, people who don’t have language, people with dementia who really are entering into places hat none of us really know. Whether they’re good, bad, they’re on a journey to somewhere that is mysterious. And by being alongside people to see the world differently, in that way you begin to see differently because you ask different questions or you begin to tell different stories about things that seem to be obvious. But I also began, maybe it has something to do with getting older, but I began to realize that, you know, culture fools you. You’re told what you should believe and you’re told what you should see and you create a kind of imagination that is given to you by the media or given to you by politics or whatever it is.
John Swinton: Which means when you look out in the world, you see everything that it tells you to see. And it always struck me that when the apostle Paul talks about transforming your mind, it’s somehow about just looking at the world differently, allowing them to make these narratives from Scripture to give you a different form of imagination, a different perspective than the world. And then when you look out, you just see things completely differently. So in some senses you’re liberated from the hidden oppression of being told what you think you should be seeing. So I never sat there one day and thought I need to look at the world differently. But if I think about it, it’s because of that, because you get different perspectives from people who see the world differently.
Sarah Kift: And so how do you see disability then?
John Swinton: Oh, I see disability as one of these things that it seems very obvious, but actually it’s not obvious at all because disability is simply a cultural marker for difference. It’s a consensus that we come to that certain things are normal and certain things are not normal. But there’s no particular reason very often for that. So for example, if you take something like down syndrome, right? At one level you could say, or intellectual disability in general—why would we have a category called intellectual disability? I mean, why is it, why does it matter about your intellect? If you had a, you had a, a society that wasn’t particularly interested in intellect, it was more interested in community and relationships and being with one another, then the category “intellectual disability” would be meaningless. So although it’s necessary perhaps for to access certain services and to help people to have their meet the needs met, it’s actually just something that people make up. And it’s when we make these things up that very often they become quite negative, quite pathological. So disability for me is a way of naming difference, but not necessarily the best way of naming difference.
Sarah Kift: Yeah. And you once talked about the Church as the body of Christ as a place of difference. And yet the church often tries to make it about sameness.
John Swinton: Yeah. There’s a kind of homogeneity about the way the Church thinks about what disciples are, what our communities are. But you know if you read what Paul says about the body of Christ, it’s diversity that makes the body of Christ. It’s not the fact that we all look the same, feel the same, think the same, or are the same. It’s our differences. And it’s when we begin to come together and live into our differences, that the body of Christ becomes something spectacularly interesting. You know, there was a missiologist in the seventies and eighties called Lesslie Newbigin who wrote a book called “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.” And the last chapter in there, if I remember correctly is called “The Church as the Hermeneutic of the Gospel.” And in there he says basically that when people look at the Church, they should see Jesus. So when they look at the Church, the Church should be that place that interprets and lives out the gospel so that when you’re looking at Luke and they think, Oh yeah, there’s something really, really different.
And part of the question is whether it does that, but part of what is really, really different is that you should see a group of people who are radically different in so many different ways coming together, recognizing that they are one in Christ and living a life of love and forgiveness and joy, uh, in the name of the God that they claim to be worshipping. So I think whether we do achieve that or not, that’s a question. But that idea of becoming the hermeneutic of the gospel, I think is important. And part of that hermeneutic, that interpretive process, relates to learning to live into difference, live creatively with difference, and recognizing that difference is actually a very good thing in principle.
Sarah Kift: Yeah. And a lot of people find that very painful and difficult, right? There’s this idea, it’s almost like the Church—and this is the work of organizations like Sanctuary, to kind of bring awareness to the Church around how to care for people, and in this context we’re talking more specifically about mental health—but there’s a sense that there’s a message that all are welcome, and yet the culture of the Church actually doesn’t bear that out. I remember recently there’s a church on the highway that I pass by and they’ve got a huge banner that says, “Come as you are.” And I immediately went, “Really?” Can you talk a little bit about that as a practical theologian, how you see the ways in which the Church is harming and maybe helping in terms of mental health and disability, like making that space where difference is actually celebrated or not?
John Swinton: Well, I mean, I think that people don’t really think about the, these kinds of contradictions and tensions because they’re quite implicit and quite subtle sometimes. Sometimes they’re very obvious. I don’t know. So forgive me, if I can give you an example. A few years ago we did a project looking to develop a way of accessing the spiritual needs of people with profound intellectual disabilities. So people who don’t have words and who aren’t able to symbolize in the way that many religious traditions assume they should do. And we kind of hang around with people and their families. So it was really, really interesting in just getting to know people and seeing how people communicate. But I always remember this one congregation where this young guy who had a significant intellectual disability and also had cerebral palsy, but he was really involved with it.
It was an active, it was a lively church. It was a very charismatic church. And the family were very happy until the minister decided to begin a healing ministry. Now, it wasn’t the healing ministry that was the problem. Because they were of the view that, you know, if God wants to heal, then God can heal. Then that’s, that’s a great thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. And the problem was that the theology behind the healing ministry was that a disability was caused by transgenerational sin. And therefore you had to get into that transgenerational sin before you can actually free this young man from his condition. And that was terrible for them because they were then and put in the position where they were part of that community, because nobody really changed that attitude to them. But that’s theology meant that we’re part of it, but never part of it.
John Swinton: You know, all that, all these many years that they’d been there, they assumed that they had just been accepted. But underneath was this theology that was clearly brought to the surface by the introduction of a particular mode of healing ministry, but actually had always been there. And so you get that hidden trope that people will accept people, but at the same time underneath, you’re not really belonging to that community. And there’s that tension between acceptance and belonging that’s really important. So I think it’s a theological issue cause I don’t think people do that out of a sense of malignancy. And I don’t think that they’re trying to be unpleasant to people. I think that either—that’s never been on the horizon to think about the kind of things that disability theology talks about. And it’s never been in the past as training, to be trained to think other than that which tradition normally says in response to human difference or in response to disability or illness or whatever it is. So I think that’s the reasons for it. And I would emphasize that I don’t think people are trying to be nasty or unpleasant, but then you don’t have to try. Sometimes it just happens.
Sarah Kift: Yeah. Well it’s that kind of ingrained worldview, that we just take for granted that everybody will engage with discipleship in the same way, that the outcomes will be the same. And you know, you were touching on healing. Can you talk a little bit about healing and mental health? Specifically things like psychosis and depression and you know, how do you see the Church being effective and caring in that regard?
John Swinton: My sense is we need to rethink our understanding of healing in quite significant ways because we—in this case being Western Christians—we have a really highly medicalized cultures. And so we go straight to medicine whenever we find something that’s wrong. You know, it’s interesting that as soon as you think about health and illness, most of us think about medicine in some way. And most of the healing in society doesn’t go on with the medicine. That professional sectors is a very small sector, most of it is in your friendships, your relationships, your chums, your family. And so we have a mindset then that the models of health and healing that come to us from medicine are the way that health and healing should be understood. And so medicine tends to think—there that tends to be a push within medicine that says that health is understood as the absence of illness. And so therefore healing is getting rid of that black spot, that dark spot, the spot of pathology within you, and then you move towards healing. And if you move to that health, and if you transfer that into the church’s healing ministry, which I think people very often do, then you can have a medicalized theology that looks around for pathology and tries to fix it by taking that away. And so the idea that you learn to level with your illness as one of the addressed project is on mental health, Christians and mental health, and one woman with severe depression said to me, the turning point for me was when I was able to befriend my depression and learn that it’s not going to go away, but I have to work out how I can live with it.
John Swinton: But that doesn’t make any sense if you have a healing ministry that’s based on, on a medical model in that way. So my general sense is that we need to think of slightly differently about what health and healing looks like. And so I always go back to that can a biblical understanding of health versus Shalom because the Bible doesn’t have an understanding of health in a biomedical absence of illness. The closest is the word Shalom and what Shalom has to do with righteousness, holiness, right relationship with God. And includes friendship and community and prosperity and all sorts of different things. But the key thing is that health is being in right relationship with God. So health is a relational concept, which would mean if you are a hedonist or a fantastic Olympic athlete, you can be really, really unhealthy. And you can be somebody that’s in the midst of a psychotic experience or you can be at the end of your life, and you can be profoundly healthy. And I think if you think about it that way, then heal and become something different. It’s not just me running around looking for ways I can fix you. And then blaming you when you’re not fixed because you don’t have enough faith or whatever you want to frame it. It’s actually to do with me keeping you connected to Jesus. So what do I do in the midst of what you’re going through that can ensure that you can be kept in touch with Jesus who has Shalom in that way? And that takes you into a whole different way of thinking about relationships, community, and all these different things. Now it may be that, I’m not saying that God doesn’t heal because it’s very clear that Jesus has a strong healing ministry, and it’s probably worth thinking about what that means as well. And that people, that God can do what God wants to do. My point is that’s not necessarily indicative of the way in which we frame health and not a limiting of the way that we understand the human.
Sarah Kift: So there’s a, a Canadian singer named Neko Case, and she writes a song about depression, actually. And one of the lines is, “Even in my darkest recollection, there was someone singing my life back to me.”
John Swinton: Right.
Sarah: And I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about, you know, we’ve defined healing as connecting people to God, but also making sure that they have a place in community. Can you talk a little bit about what it would mean for a church to tell a different story and to actually practically engage in and sing someone’s life back to them in the context of healing.
John Swinton: In the context of depression?
Sarah Kift: Yeah. Or you know, any kind of mental health challenge that can often be isolating.
John Swinton: Well, just sticking with depression, one thing that churches can probably do well is stop assuming that happiness equals faithfulness. And that when you’re in worship, it’s a lovely thing to be happy, but that doesn’t necessarily define what the presence of God looks like or feels like. Because one of the things I think that troubles people living with depression is that—particularly those of us who are charismatic, which is me, or kind of worship that I like—you know, it tends to be vibrant, exciting and very, very positive, which makes it really difficult to be sad in the midst of that situation. And that can be a tough. And I spoke to a woman recently who was articulating exactly. She’d lived with depression for many years. And she was saying how difficult it was to be in worship when everybody else is happy and when she’s feeling miserable. And she was saying that the way in which her worship leader began to deal with that was by introducing lament into worship, using the Psalms of lament as a way of articulating the sadness and as a way of allowing people to have the full range of emotions within the context of worship. And not simply assuming that everybody should be happy at every moment in time because nobody really is. So that’s a that in a very literal sense, that’s a way of of singing the Lord and to your experience in the midst of sadness and tragedy and brokenness. But what was also interesting about her was that she said she didn’t want everybody else to stop doing that. She wanted people to hold her happiness for her even if she can’t feel it herself. So that when she comes to that space where she can engage in a different way, there’s always that space held open for her. So she needs to lament, she needs sadness, but she also needs people to hold her and the joy of the community. And I think there’s something powerful about that, that even in our most intimate worship times, we need one another to do the things that we can’t do ourselves.
Sarah Kift: Oh, it’s very moving. For me personally. I’m just thinking about how, you know, if you’ve been a Christian for a while, you engage with Church in different ways. And sometimes when you’re going through difficult time, you might decide not to go because it doesn’t match your mood or what you’re suffering with. So thinking about the Church as a place that is holding space for difference and for suffering and for lament and for happiness. I mean that’s a pretty big challenge especially in the evangelical church model where you have a couple of triumphant songs and then you have announcements and then you have a time where everybody has to sit quietly for an hour to listen to a sermon, and then you have a go out there and bless the world. You know, that’s like, to me, I see that as a kind of a direct challenge to the way that we actually do our services as a church. And for some people that can be difficult to come to because you might be used to a particular form of worship. So how have you seen, have you seen that play out in the church world? Like being able to change the actual flow of the service to accommodate difference?
John Swinton: Some churches do, cause some churches have an awareness. The thing that you, I suppose we always have to bear in mind, is that the place of liturgy, your service, worship is a place of formation that shapes and forms you into the kind of person, the kind of disciple that you are. So if you’re only getting one dimension of human life or human formation in your a worship life—you’ve got to be happy, you’ve got to have a theology of glory, you’ve got to be like—then that’s not actually, it doesn’t form you well as a human being. It doesn’t form you well as a Christian because it seems to me that when we think about the nature of joy, for example, it’s very clear that joy includes suffering. It’s very clear. Also, joy is not just happiness. Joy is being with Jesus in the presence of Jesus, which inevitably involves suffering. And the book of Hebrews is full of that, that way of thinking. So actually if you have a liturgy that doesn’t involve and include the whole breadth of human experiences, then you may produce disciples who are excited for a time, but when the encounter deep sadness and brokenness, either they have to pretend to be joyful or they fall apart. Or fall away. And so I think although in the short term it’s, it’s nice to feel great. I think it’s good to feel like I like going to worship, I love raising my hands. I love the feeling of being sent out into the world to participate in the things that God is doing. But if that’s all it is, and if there’s no space in there for suffering, faithful, suffering, and faithful sadness, then we have a problem.
Sarah Kift: So then let’s talk a little bit about this idea that being human is a broad range of possibilities. And how people who are dealing with a mental health problem or a disability, how they can contribute then to the body of Christ.
John Swinton: Oh, that’s funny, isn’t it? Because, now, I can’t for the life of me remember who it was that talked about mental health challenges as “no casserole illnesses.” If you get cancer people will bring you a casserole, if you could, schizophrenia, people don’t bother. But it’s also, there’s a tendency for it to be a non-vocational condition or set of experiences. So if you have cancer, people can very easily see this is your vocation. You’re going to learn things about God through this and God’s going to teach you and you’ll be able to teach other people. If you have some something like schizophrenia, people find it very difficult to think that you have a vocation, that have a calling from God to do anything other than be ill, but if you speak to people with who live with—Christians who live with psychotic disorders, very often they feel they’re called by God to do certain things. Of course that will become pathologized.
John Swinton: If I say to you, if you think I have bipolar disorder, and I say that I’m called by God to do something, you’re going to say that’s your bipolar disorder. So I think we don’t listen enough and we don’t pay enough attention to what it means to be a disciple and to have a severe mental health challenge. And how you can hold these two together without having to think you have to fix this person before they, before they can do something, before they can actually participate in the things of God. Because the reality is people with enduring mental illness or bipolar disorder or certain modes of schizophrenia, they’re always going to have that. The key is how can you live well and live faithfully in that? And how can Jesus’ words—when Jesus says, “I come to bring life and all of its fullness”—what does that mean for people who live with these kinds of experiences? And I think we don’t pay enough attention to what that actually looks like and what that actually means. Because every disciple has a vocation and that doesn’t change because you get sick.
Sarah Kift: And so how would that look? I’m sort of pushing your practical theologian button here. How would that look then to include people in the Church whose vocational abilities might be different than your discipleship program?
John Swinton: Well, it’s funny, I’ve got, I have a PhD student, just know that’s looking at the discipleship and profound intellectual disability. And that’s exactly the question that he’s asking him because what he’s noticed is that most of the discipleship programs are—have an assumption that you have a set level of intellect and you’re able to believe certain things and do certain things, then you can become a disciple. So he’s kind of giving that a bit of a push. But I think that you can begin to help people find their vocation by enabling them to participate. So we were talking about liturgy. If we were, for example, to enable people who live with enduring depression to create liturgical resources for the church, then that would be a very interesting way of using your vocation. I was at a conference at Calvin college last year, was it? This year? I get confused it. I want to say last year. There was a session on mental health and liturgy, and in that there were people with mental health challenges who had written sermons, written liturgy, used the psalms of lament in a variety of different ways, and just gave a completely different perspective on what it means to worship together from this perspective. So I think at the, at the level of worship that, you know, beginning to have that liturgical involvement is one way in which certain people can do that. Then and I think the other way in which we can begin to think about discovering people’s vocation is by moving away from the idea that people with mental health challenges are simply a responsibility in terms of pastoral care, and begin to think that it’s a responsibility as part of being the body of Christ in terms of discipleship. What does it mean for somebody to have extraordinary and unconventional mental health experiences and still to be walking with Jesus? How do you incorporate that into the way in which you teach people what it means to be a disciple? You know, I was saying, I was saying to class yesterday, there was a guy called John Hull, who many years ago wrote a paper titled—he was blind—his title was “Could a Blind Person be a Disciple of Jesus?” And his conclusion was no, because Jesus would have felt obliged to heal him because it would be a bad witness. And that same dynamic runs within—the temptation would always be, okay, you have enduring schizophrenia, I’ll fix you and then you can come to Jesus. But that’s not the right dynamics. So to get away from that and to begin to rethink discipleship within a variety of different contexts, I think is a challenge. It’s a difficult challenge, but I think it opens up space for discovering the nature of vocation in unusual places.
Sarah Kift: And it’s almost like this idea of telling different stories. Yeah. The classic conversion narrative is you are not connected to God. You might have had some drastic experience in your life and then you meet God and then everything is okay and you’re healed and then you go out and be a witness. But actually, if we told a different kind of story of a conversion narrative where someone, for example, has been living with schizophrenia for twenty years and he’s an integral part of the prayer ministry and is, you know, living in community and encouraging others and is a peer support to other people who are struggling with schizophrenia. Right?
John Swinton: Precisely. That’s exactly right. Because one thing that people do have when they go through these sometimes very difficult experiences is people develop a sensitivity that other people don’t have. They understand, empathize, with people’s situations in ways that other people can’t because they haven’t been to that situation. The key would be how can we as the Church together tap into that expertise and enable that sensitivity to become part of our overall pastoral strategy in being together.
Sarah Kift: And sensitivity takes time. And patience and it, and it sort of moves you away from developing a product into looking at a person, right?
John Swinton: Yeah, yeah. That’s exactly right.
Sarah Kift: So let’s talk a little bit more about medication. We kind of delved into healing a little bit, but for example, someone who’s hearing voices and then goes on medication, they might actually have a loss of community in the sense that they’ve lived with those voices for many years. So how do you square your understanding of human biology and healing and faith and medication? This is a big question, but we can kind of get into it because I think this is one that a lot of Christians, especially in North America, wrestle with. You know, it’s either you get prayer or you get medication and the two are not mutually exclusive. But I know I grew up in a tradition where they were, right? So tell me, tell me a little bit more about your thoughts on that. Maybe we can talk a bit about—so disability is defined as not being able to participate in a certain kind of culture. Right? So it’s considered inability in our cultural framework. But then how does medication kind of come into that?
John Swinton: I understand. I understand. So there’s two aspects to that that would be useful to talk to. The one in relation to people with psychotic illness I think is actually very important because the temptation is to assume that a person’s voices are profoundly negative and that somebody wants to get rid of them. And sometimes that’s the case because sometimes it can be. You know, when you begin to speak to people who hear voices and you know that there’s some voices that are helpful, some are unhelpful, some of them are dangerous, some are not. And so, but the point is that for many people, it’s the only this community that they have. And so unusual and distant as that may feel, if you simply give somebody a medication to get rid of the voices, then you actually end up alienating the person because there’s nothing else like. You know, it’s like if you take away a delusion and don’t replace it with a positive identity, you’ve got nothing else. So you can, at one level you can—it can appear that you’re doing the right things. According to certain modes of healing, you would be doing the right thing. You can get rid of that, these voices because they’re meaningless entities. But another dimension, the subjective dimension, you’d actually doing something completely different, which could actually be quite harmful. The key would be to hold these two things in tension. That if you are the prescriber, then you take full cognizance of the meaning of the experience along with the medication and use a medication to help the person in their fullness rather than simply to get rid of that which seems to be most obvious. I think it’s that relational sensitivity and moving away from mere symptoms to relationship, to experiences that helps people to be better with prescribing in that kind of situation. And in another sense medication can be extremely helpful spiritually. So one of the participants in the study I’m working on just now, he lives with double depression. Which is a new diagnosis, it’s an American diagnosis, which means that even when he’s well, he has a level of clinical depression that for most people would be clinical depression. And he talks about having like various levels of encounter with depression. So when he’s at level one, he’s able to function quite well. Level two, he’s able to read scripture and he can sometimes use the Psalms of lament, articulate his sadness and brokenness. But when it gets to level three, he can’t do anything at all. Because it’s so dark, the pit is so low, and it’s so inescapable that he can’t do anything. And I asked him, what do you do to get out of that? And he said, drugs—medication, he meant medication. He said there is absolutely no way that I can come back to any kind of spiritual norm unless I have medication. He says it’s kinda like all Christians are kind of climbing a spiritual wall. Some people get to the top through particular ways. I need medication at least to get me on that journey so they can get to that space where I can at least feel—I say often and feel God in that way. And so in that context, medication really functions as a spiritual practice because it releases somebody from that loneliness and alienness ness and darkness and bring them to a space where they can at least begin to open up to the possibility of reconnecting with God in that way. So it functions spiritually. Then of course there’s the problems with that. Does that mean that we just take drugs in order to get close to God? But that’s not—people have said that to me. I say that’s a kind of flippant response that doesn’t understand what depression is. And so I think that there’s something interested about that. But that I think there’s also something interesting in terms of spiritual care in general, that it’s not necessarily doing or learning a new set of competencies. It’s very often doing what you’re doing already, but just seeing it slightly differently. I think to go back to the issue of giving medication for voices, it’s just doing what you’re doing already, but doing it slightly differently. Opening yourself up to the interpersonal dimensions of the process of medicating and then seeing what that looks like.
Sarah Kift: Yeah. Again, it kind of brings us back to this theme of telling different stories, making space for difference. So in your own journey we all kind of go through different levels of passion and interest and burnout. Where are you on that road at the moment? Cause you’ve been doing this work for a long time.
John Swinton: I’m getting old. Where am I at this point? I still love it. I still find it really interesting. I still have a passion. The one thing I have found in my life is my vocation. I know I what do is the right thing to do. I know what I’m doing is the right thing to do. Whether I do it well or not is not the point, but it’s the right thing to do. So for me it’s been a long and interesting journey from driving vans to being a nurse, to being a chaplain, to being an academic. And actually, you know, it’s a strange thing because if I look back at what I thought I would be in what I’d been doing thirty years ago and what I’ve ended up doing now, there’s no connection in my mind—it just doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. And I think vocation is a little bit like that. You know, sometimes we think of vocation as it’s like your career path and if you don’t get it right, then you know—God’s only got one path for you and if you don’t get it right, then you’re going to be disappointed. My general sense and my general experience is that vocation has to do with simply listening. And sometimes you listen better than others and if you don’t listen, if you find yourself going in the wrong direction, God very often takes you back to a different place, not necessarily the same place. But I think God’s got the flexibility about his vocational thinking that actually Christians very often don’t have. And so, I mean, you can’t gauge the world through my story, but that certainly in terms of what I’ve seen in life, I think there are many roads to get to the places that God wants you to be.
Sarah Kift: Well that’s kind of profoundly what you’re, I guess I would say your mission has been to speak to the Church about, right? There are many roads to get to the place where God is taking you. And so what are your hopes then for—cause you’ve been speaking about this and working with people and bringing awareness and really encouraging the Church and Christians in general to think deeply about these issues. So what do you see as your hope for the next few years in terms of how the Church responds to what you’ve been saying?
John Swinton: I have no idea because I don’t know. I mean, it’s a strange thing, writing a book for example. It’s like bringing up kids. So you have your kids and you do your best with them, you bring them up, you teach them as much as you can. Then you send them out into the world and they do their own thing and you have no control over that. And sometimes they come back home and tell you some things that they’ve done. Sometimes they don’t. Writing books is like that, you know. I do what I do. Then I send them off into the world and then I come to places like Vancouver and people say, “Wow, that was really helpful.” And I think, “Well that’s good.” Your baby’s doing something positive in the world. So my hope is that the work that I’ve done in all those different facets continues to do that because what it’s intended to do really is to give people different ways of thinking, the tools to think differently in order that in whatever context they are, they can begin to raise issues that wouldn’t have been raised had they not read this particular book or thought in this particular way. So my hope for my work as that it continues to do that. And my hope for the Church and in relation to mental health is that organizations like Sanctuary really begin to be taken seriously and taken credibly. And I said, I think that, you know, when you see ministry done well and done efficiently, you take it seriously. And when you see it done from the perspective of the gospel and when people begin to see that, actually this is not just a specialist ministry for people who are interested in these kinds of things, there’s actually something fundamental about what we are as Church. Then I think you begin to get that shift and begin to take people seriously—take the issue seriously. One of the problems that people have at the moment is they don’t have resources. And I think that things like Sanctuary, the project and the resources that come from that are exactly what people need. And so my hope is that other resources will come to the fore. And this is the beginning of something big and powerful.
Sarah Kift: And I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit, but I’ll give you a bit of time to think about this. So what would you say to somebody who is just beginning their journey of understanding disability and how it relates to the Church? So they’re just a regular church member. Maybe they serve coffee or they greet at the door and they really realize that they want to encourage more inclusivity in their church, but they’re just at the beginning of that path. What would you say to them?
John Swinton: I say that I’m just doing because it isn’t actually very complicated. You don’t have to be—you don’t have to go on a training course to be with people. I just think it’s not complicated just to be friends with people. I don’t think it’s complicated just to learn how to look at difference as if it doesn’t matter. Apart from maybe in certain practical details that we need to adjust certain things. I think people need to overcome their fear and just, you know, once you hang around with people who are different, you will become different.
Sarah Kift: Well that’s beautifully put, John. It’s true. Actually. The founder of Sanctuary, Sharon, always says it’s really good to be friends with people who are different than you as a way to actually challenge the things that you take for granted.
John Swinton: Exactly. I think Jesus has something like that as well, didn’t he?
Sarah Kift: Yeah. Yeah. I was just thinking a little bit before we wrap up about actually the stories of Jesus healing. One of my favorites is the man in the cemetery and you know, Jesus heals him, but he also does something else and that is—he asks him what his name is and then he encourages him to go back to his community. And, and can you just tell me a little bit about how that could be something for the Church to think about in terms of their ministry?
John Swinton: One of the interesting things about the healings of Jesus is the way in which he sends people back. And he does the same thing with the lepers. You know, in John’s gospel he says, go back to the temple and testify. It’s always, I mean, this is a key part in John is testify. So go and tell these people who I am and when they know who I am, he hoped that there’d be change. Of course people didn’t, in the temple, people didn’t do that. And I think there’s something profoundly important about enabling people to testify, to tell their story, to tell a spiritual story of how they are with Jesus. What Jesus has been in their lives, where they’re going with Jesus. And that’s not—you don’t have to be healed to do that. I mean the healing narrative bring it to the fore through healing, but to tell that story and to have space to tell that story in a way that is credible and it’s not tinted by people’s associations or assumptions about your diagnosis, I think is the beginning point for a transformative experience for the whole Church. So I think that’s a good example.
Sarah Kift: Anything else that you want to say today or share that kind of brought up in our conversation?
John Swinton: Nothing that Springs to mind.
Sarah Kift: I just want to say thank you because I think that it’s really important as a Christian and somebody walking through faith to challenge the way that we see things. And to also challenge the way that we see people, because as you said beautifully, we are called to be different and that means to engage with and embrace and welcome difference in our own lives and in the life of our church. Yeah. So on behalf of, well, on behalf of everyone, but on behalf of myself and I just want to say thank you for doing the work that you do.
John Swinton: Well that’s very kind of you. Thank you for listening.
Sarah Kift: Thanks for your time today, John. I’m your host Sarah Kift and I’m thankful for the people who helped make this episode happen. Post production and editing by Jonathan Kift, music by the artist Crashed by Car via Archive.org ,and all funding and support by the team at Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. This podcast is released under Creative Commons Attribution, non-commercial, no-derivatives, 4.0 license. Don’t change it or sell it, but please share it all you like.