At the cross

Long habits of self loathing or low self esteem die hard and some mornings the black dog mood hits you before you even wake. Before you raise your lazy head from the sunken pillow a little scrap of sad creeps under the door and shakes you awake with its whispering doom. Ambushed by a depression you gave up long ago, you have a strategy to rout your combatant before he can even touch the God blessed waking day ahead.

“Don’t you realise I have power?” said Pilate to Jesus. And Jesus answered, “You have no power over me.” (John 19.10-11)

In small skirmishes fought out on the battle grounds of our minds, we are never the victims. We found surprising safety in a place of terrifying violence, namely the cross. If we are safe there we are safe anywhere.We were not scared to face the cruelty of that place with all its harsh realities because we know the man who hung on that cross owned that place and that time, as an episode in the unfolding story where all of the world’s sin would be silenced forever. Silenced in the cry, “It is done!”, entombed in three cold grave days, then drowned out by the roar of a rock rolled away from the mouth of a darkness that had threatened to consume God himself.

This song has been keeping me company through a week that seemed a little hard.

 

“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolises divine suffering. ‘The cross of Christ … is God’s only self-justification in such a world” as ours….’ ‘The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak; they rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.”

John R. W. Stott

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Why we won’t talk about depression

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Following my recent post on depression, “When we won’t talk about depression”, I wanted to write about some of the reasons why we won’t talk about depression, with a view to encouraging myself and everyone else to open up a little more or be a good listener to a friend in need.

So, here are so suggestion as to why we won’t talk about depression,

1. I didn’t know I was depressed

You weren’t sure whether you were depressed and it sounded like a rather dramatic and confident self-diagnosis. The line between miserable kill joy and person with a recognisable mental health condition was a thin line and you were unsure which side of the line you were standing on, which is good enough reason to stay mum. In addition to this many depressive are very successful at masking their symptoms, to themselves as well as the outside world. All smiles, with a very regular looking ‘get up and get on’ attitude to life, it’s perfectly possible to live for years as if there is very little wrong at all. When all the voices around you are urging you to cheer up, snap out of it and find something to keep your mind off yourself, it isn’t always easy to call out depression for what it is. I was significantly helped by a pastor’s wife friend who listened to my story and suggested I could be depressed and encouraged me to see the doctor. This is how I found out I had depression and realised I’d probably suffered with it on and off since my mid teens.

2. I’m too ashamed

Shame is a destructive emotion that gets down into the soul. It interferes with our sense of self and our will to change. Shame imposes upon us an ideal person we should be and at the same time tells us that we can never be that person. Shame reminds us over and over again, I am not the strong and beautiful person I thought I was and sets us up for the most dramatic fail. There is undoubtedly a good amount of shame surrounding our individual and societal perceptions of mental health. It takes a brave soul to speak up above that. But shame dies the minute we share our story with a person who listens to us properly without judging. It is hard to talk to someone about your worst fears and vulnerabilities, but with the right person you realise you are just taking to another individual with fears and vulnerabilities of their own. Talking openly and honestly is a great equaliser. We instantly know we are not alone and the weight of negative judgements and condemnations fade as we find the better things about ourselves and others mirrored in the soul of another human being.

3. I’m too depressed to talk about it

Clearly this one is a vicious circle for anyone caught in it, but it is true that the more depressed an individual becomes the more they shut down their communications and responses to the outside world. There was a point where I was able to name and identify the complete inability to receive comfort as a chief characteristic of my own peculiar brand of depression. My inability to receive comfort extended to my very supportive husband, my children, my closest friends and even God. A miserable place to be. Talking seemed pointless when I already knew there was nothing anyone could say to make me feel better. Sometimes I avoided conversation to protect myself from the disappointment I felt when a friend failed to give me hope. Sometimes I wanted to protect my friend from the disappointment they would feel when I rejected their loving care and well meant advice.

4. The people I most want to talk to are the people who most need me strong

“Not you! You’re always so strong!” How many times have newly confessing depressives met with this response as they try to tell their friends and family about their problems? This is why so many individuals choose not to put their nearest and dearest through the trauma and suffer the depression alone. But maybe part of growing up is giving others the opportunity to help and support us through our troubles, rather than forever clinging onto an identity that rests in our roles as providers, problems solvers or authority figures. After all we are not behove to live out our lives according to the images others have made for us, especially when those images no longer fit well and make us ill. On the other side of more realistic images of ourselves are stronger more authentic relationships that are probably worth the struggles it takes to get there. We all need to recognise and appreciate that no one can be strong all the time and showing some weakness and human failure is, in itself, a strength.

So, four excellent reasons for keeping your pain a secret, all demonstrating that we are all completely justified in our reluctance to share the pain of depression. Sharing the heart-ache and making oneself vulnerable is a risky business that demands the types of courage we tend to lack when we are depressed. But finding someone to talk to about your situation and feelings could be the best thing you ever did soI hope you find a very human soul to share your story with and a little bit of bravery as a result of your reading here.

Let me know about your own stories of sharing mental health issues with others or your own views on what makes it so difficult for us to talk about depression. If you are suffering from depression remember that you should not hesitate to see your doctor and after that find a trusted friend to share your story with.

Finally I leave you with another story of hope and healing beyond postpartum depression and sincerely thanks to Jennifer Dukes Lee for sharing this online.

Blowing away the cobwebs

coffee

I took my coffee and bagel to the beach this morning.

I sat in the car for a while and read a psalm.

I read a psalm in the car park amongst the muddy puddles and potholes overlooking the marshes bedraggled from high tides and storms. On the shoreline the white birds sat in a blazing row, wet wings a-flap like prayer flags in the wind. Long before the sun broke through the lumpy grey sky the heavens declare the glory of God. Well before the words, when no speech is heard, small moments of glory hopped like sparrows in the cover of the hawthorn hedge. Reed buntings swung on stems of grass then rose to the skies with a chorus of song; a chorus like words to the ends of the earth.

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;

no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,

their words to the ends of the world.

Psalm 19.1-4

I went to the beach because I needed to blow away the cobwebs, as the saying goes: to clear my head, gets some perspective, to exorcise some crazy phantoms of the mind.

seascape

I had friends when I was a child and their home was hundreds of years old. Half timbered and sow’s blood pink it stood on the cross roads in the village with the red brick manor house, the old mill and the bridge over the Gipping river. They teased me those friends, that the cobwebs between the exposed beams on the crooked upstairs landing were the only thing holding the old house up. And I almost believed them. Ancient cobwebs, strong as any surveyors underpinning, the only thing stopping these ancient timbers and red tile roof tumbling to the ground.

The cobwebs are not holding the house up.

As the cold gusts blew away the cobwebs there on the beach, the word of God moved into the freshly dusted, light filled space, exchanging lies for the startling truth. Obsessive worries of the not-good-enough days replaced with reassurance of ultimate value and worth. Outside-looking-in loneliness exchanged for reassurances of belonging and a call that still stands. Confusions smoothed and unfurled in the sweeping wind. Hope and love restored, belief in hope and love restored. Discouragements and obstacles that looked huge on the horizon diminished in size on a seascape horizon under a great open sky.

The law of the Lord is perfect,

refreshing the soul.

The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,

making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right,

giving joy to the heart.

The commands of the Lord are radiant,

giving light to the eyes.

Psalm 19.7-9

Today is the day when I pushed a metaphor to the limits of meaning, blowing away the cobwebs down there on the beach, making a soul space to hear God again.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart

be pleasing in your sight.

Psalm 19.14

New boots and other answered prayers

boots

When Lucy and I decided to tour the charity shops on Saturday morning I was not especially looking for boots. So when I found a pair of near perfect condition cowboy boots, in my size, for under £10, it seemed as if they had been put there just for me. We went for a coffee and I put them on, right there in the shop, and I’ve been wearing them most of the time since. Perfect.

I started watching boots on Ebay in the Autumn. Cowboy boots mainly. But, because Andy was made redundant in November and the weather stayed mild, I never did get as far as making a bid. However, I did keep the boots in my mental list of wishes, right there with a Neom candle (rose and neroli), a mechanical pencil sharpener and a copy of the new Tom Wright.

On a rainy wind swept morning in Southport, a little tired from a long week and with a list of chores to complete before the parking ran out, I was taken by surprise by a gift that seemed to be more that just a lucky find.  And I asked myself some questions about blessings, grace and favour. Especially, questions about blessings grace and favour towards those of us who already live in relative plenty.

Does God really answer little prayers to aid my convenience or to brighten a dull-ish day?

When I pray from the comfort of my relative plenty will He indulge my request or will He remind me to be satisfied with what I already have?

In a world of starving children, displaced people, gross human injustice accompanied by violence and shame, is God interested in the prayers I make for more comfort in my home or in my heart or for my well fed kids and friends?

Are my answered prayers to be attributed to God or are they nothing more than a series of happy coincidences in a western world constructed for my comfort and provision?

Any hint of prayer entitlement, any ‘name it or claim it’ theology of a divine Father who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, surely misses the point. There is a fullness of life waiting to be lived beyond the shopping list mentality of shallow and exclusive ‘me’ prayers. There is an engagement with this God-filled life that convincingly demonstrates the sufficiency of what God has already done and transforms our prayers from ‘give me’ and ‘bless me’ pleas to a settled ‘thank you’, because we have seen the bigger picture of what God is about in this frantic world.

Since Andy was made redundant we are learning to live in a new place of trust in God, like nothing we’ve ever done before. The ground here is much firmer than you may think. One day at a time we have had enough and sometimes more. Beyond food on the table and bills paid there is a quality to what we have been given that can not be measured in the balancing of the books or in any unit of market currency. I don’t know if it was there before or if we are noticing it for the first time but we are living like princes and kings and our abundance is about the material provision and more.  The more is very important but difficult to describe. There is friendship and kindness and peace in our home.  There is a beauty in creation right where we live, enough now to last us into old age. We are learning to receive aright. We talk aloud about God and give thanks much more. We are closer to each other and closer to our friends. We are counting all these things as if they really mattered because they really do.

The central heating is humming quietly to itself and the sky is true blue. There’s a pigeon perched on the pointed roof end of the red brick house across the road. All of this from the warm comfort of my bed on the kind of morning where I should be swelling with thankfulness.  When Andy brings me my cup of tea I mention the money, the bills and the days ahead. He tells me he has been considering the lilies. These would be the lilies of the field that do not toil or spin or rush around frantically trying to make something of their short short life. These would be the lilies of the field that have discovered this life is not a do-it-yourself project in personal advancement but a fullness of life with a God who is more than enough.

I am firmly convinced that thankful people will experience more of this type of blessing than anyone else on the face of the earth, that answered prayers come more often to those who are watching for the gifts and chasing after good. In such a world God may well provide little things for our own comfort and open up a place for us where we can see more of the answers to our prayers  and questions about sufferings and pain. For there is a life where our unspoken hopes and dreams meet with the glorious realities of God-in-our-world and we begin to see that coincidences happen more often when we pray and the world is blessed when we live it beyond the mundane needs of the material me.  So, as I pray for provision for today I pray with hope and joy into a world already populated with the blessings of God and to a heavenly Father who is totally for me and committed to my care. Amen.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6.25-34

This Valentine’s post

This Valentine’s post came hard.

After several hours of pursuing fruitless lines of argument, google searches and my own collections of notes and quotes I flung myself on the sofa resigned to not writing a Valentine’s post after all. Valentine’s, anniversaries and other rituals of love have never really been our thing. Buckling under the terrible pressure of having to write meaningfully and authentically about LOVE!

I had thought the Ian and Larissa video expressed what I wanted to say about marriage until I watched it through again. I tied myself up in knots before I realised I had no idea what I really wanted to say and even less of an idea of exactly what their particular story could tell us outsiders about our own marriages or relationships. After all this is their once-only-never-again unique story. It has been a tough journey for them and they have earned their reward. We have our own tough paths to tread and our own rewards to enjoy. There are plenty of books, podcasts and videos on marriage and relationships but the true fact is you have to walk it for yourself. In a world where the nature of marriage is being fiercely debated and many struggle with the burden of broken relationships, disappointments and injustices I just want to let this story speak for itself.

I laid down my pencil and released myself from the tug of the empty page. I remembered that you can only ever really write well from what you know and the things you treasure in your own heart rather than treasures borrowed from somewhere else. I can’t make a good blog post out of someone else’s story and I can’t encourage you in someone else relational practices, not even my own. So if I do have a post then this is it: in individual life, in marriage, with friends and in church you need to be yourself, be comfortable with being yourself and find others who are equally comfortable around you when you are being yourself. In turn you’ll grow to be happy and good at listening to others telling their stories with all the hard truths, failures and disappointments as well as the joys, dreams and triumphs.

In Sunday school last week we were making play dough animals and we talked with the kids about God and why He created the universe. One little girl said she thought God wanted to tell a story and that He wanted us and all the other creatures to be in that story. It seemed so beautiful for a child to see God as a great storyteller and especially that she believed herself a character in that story.

I somehow feel more loved and secure when I think of myself as part of an on going creative work, a story that has been told by God since the beginning of time and continues to be told today. I am called into the story in this place, at this time, with the people who surround me in our tiny corner of the plot. I’ve glimpsed the ending (I think) and though I’m often not sure where the storyteller is taking me, I sense how we are all moving towards the final chapters and the resolution of some of the loose ends and unresolved tensions. I was reminded of Mother Teresa who said,

I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.

So go live your story, every beautiful and terrible moment of it. Live it exactly how it is without reservation. Write in bold and authentic script a sparkling testimony to your own true self and find some trustworthy people along the way to share your story with as they share their story with you.

When we won’t talk about depression

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The first time I visited a counsellor I walked into the waiting area of the clinic and saw a woman from my church there. I slipped straight out again and walked once around the block. When I came back she had disappeared (how we wish the depressed would disappear!) and I persuaded myself to sit in the high-risk waiting room for a few more vulnerable minutes until my name was called. As if visiting a counsellor hadn’t raised enough issues for me, I then faced the added shame of being seen visiting a counsellor. Apparently depression was something we shared in common but never talked about, especially not in church.

Back then no one talked about depression especially the common everyday type, unwarranted, un-asked for and unwelcome. You might have got away with a reactive depression following the death of a loved one or a similar crisis event; something truly worthy of grief. A nervous breakdown, shrouded in medical enigma and psycho-babble had a certain drama that rendered it acceptable in a hushed unspeakable way, but everyday depression that lingered grey for months was an anathema.

When I first wrote about my own struggles with depression back in June, a light touch piece prettied up with some descriptions of the beautiful Lancashire countryside, I was stunned by the response. It put me in touch with a community of others whose lives had been affected in some way by keeping depression a secret. In the church coffee room or watching the kids play in the park I met with people who were surprised I had suffered from depression, people who were surprised I would admit to having suffered from depression, and we talked. Sometimes we talked softly and sometimes with boldness, in coffee shops and at the end of meetings when the chairs were being stacked and the light turned off. I met people who wanted to tell me their stories. Online and in homes I shared with those who I thought knew my story but clearly did not, people who listened to my version to make sense of their own. Depression is one of our best kept secrets and these were people talking about depression for the first time ever.

This week saw the launch of Time to Change an ambitious UK project aimed at removing the stigma of mental illness because the nine out of ten people who suffer say that the prejudice and discrimination they have experienced is worse that the pain of the illness. We raise awareness of how mental illness is experienced whenever we share with honesty. Talking and listening we can give and receive healing one friend at a time.

I wanted to share some links on depression and mental health. Some are from big name experts and others are from ordinary everyday sufferers sharing their stories online. They are all brave people and you can be sure that for each one of them, the lucid well structured thoughts and carefully penned sentences have emerged out of a chaos of pain, disappointment and frustrations, common to anyone whose life has been touched by the pain of mental illness.

The Links – hopeful, healing readings!

1. Adrian Warnock is a true Christian blog-father and also a trained psychiatrist. You can find many articles on mental health issues on his blog at Patheos. I share three below for starters,

What causes mental illness?

What is depression and how is it treated?

Can a Christian get depressed?

2. Amy Simpson is the author of, ‘Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission’. She blogs at amysimpsononline.com and I share three of her many excellent pieces below,

Evangelicals, You’re Wrong About Mental Illness

Is Mental Illness Just Spiritual Weakness?

1 Thing I Want Everyone to Know about Mental Illness

3. Mark Lawrence is local to the North West where I live. He describes himself as ‘Christian, husband, father and leader who eventually worked out that life is a journey!’ He has recently shared a series of honest and vulnerable pieces on his own battles with mental health issues. I share the first of the series here and the rest can be found on his blog, Loved, Free and Powerful.

My journey through the valley with faith, hope and love

4. Elli Johnson has told her own story on her blog, The Hippo Chronicles, currently up to part 12, I share the first instalment here,

The Diagnosis

5. Katharine Welby is daughter to the ABC but in her own right a significant advocate of all depressives and other marginalised people, something she seems constantly surprised by!

Hopeful depression

Finding time for God

And a final story from, Andrea Selley which I think you will be glad you read.

I am not a doctor and neither are the writers whose pieces I am sharing. Depression is a significant illness and if you think you are suffering from it you should see your doctor who will be able to help you.

Do not lose heart

I’ve been singing along to this song for most of the day. I began un-comfortable with the idea that God would slay, but I sang anyway. I sang on like I’ve done many times. I sang on thinking of friends finding Christ in all the mess of everyday life where everyday miracles settle the matter over and above the surface meaning of simple words.

I would struggle to do justice theologically to the words of Job in the lines, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” (Job 13.15)  All around us is a measure and a quality of human pain that is difficult to respond to in written words or in a simple song. Nothing makes atheists faster than Christian theology that is too quick in giving neat answers to difficult question. Nothing makes discouraged Christians faster than answers that do not direct them to Jesus. All that I know of Jesus persuades me that there is a measure and a quality of God, found in Christ, that is more than equal to the pain and suffering we know and see in the world. 

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4.16-18,  

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

So, I am in no doubt that there is an ever increasing measure of the love of God available for each of us. What is more, I am convinced that our best God-treasure will be found when we seek Him in our trouble and distress. I am convinced that no suffering, however desperate or severe, is without meaning and purpose in the beautiful plan that God has for our lives. I am certain that in every circumstance we can know this love of God as, “an eternal glory that far outweighs them all”.