Shadow sides 6: Elijah and his depression

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

The epidemic of mental health issues is well-recorded, yet it continues to be difficult for many Christians to see it as it is: an illness no more sinful or shameful than a broken leg. Anyone can break their leg, no matter how holy they are. In the same way, anyone’s mind can end up in plaster. Depression’s regular companion is anxiety; add in a side-serving of PTSD and you have my trio. Charles Spurgeon, widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers in British history, suffered from at times crippling depression. Trevor Noah, South African comedian and host of The Daily Show, has wrestled with it. Winston Churchill coined the phrase ‘the black dog’ for his battles. Psalm 42 describes tears as food and the soul as downcast; Jesus’ sorrow overwhelms Him to the point of death (Matthew 26); yet for many mental health issues are the Christian’s dirty little secret.

Consider Elijah, whose story is found in 1 Kings 17-19. The people of God are in a bad way, wandering far from where they should be. Elijah’s life and ministry is to call them back to how they should be. For two chapters we get the sense that his is the ministry of mountain-tops and ecstasy; miracles, fire from heaven, slaughtering opponents, standing bravely for God, speaking truth to power. Yet in the wake of his biggest vindication, Elijah crashes. In chapter 19 he fears for his life and runs for the wilderness; he’s suicidal. All told, this episode will last somewhere in the region of 40 days – Biblical speak, we know, for a long time. He asks God to kill him.

What God does – and doesn’t  – do with his prophet is instructive on how we should deal with depression in ourselves and others. There’s no magic cure; first off it’s sleep and food. The latter is miraculously provided, but Elijah scarcely notices; sometimes when you’re depressed just eating a meal can seem like a major achievement. Here begins the hallmark of God’s treatment of Elijah’s depression – gentleness. He doesn’t tell Elijah to stop wallowing in self-pity; He doesn’t tell Elijah’s he’s sinning; He doesn’t tell Elijah to pull himself together. He moves towards Elijah; he meets Elijah where He is and doesn’t ask him to change. Instead, when he’s ready, He lets Elijah talk. He asks open-ended, ‘why’ questions; not closed ‘yes/no’ questions. It doesn’t matter to God that Elijah’s answer to those questions barely changes; He just lets Elijah talk. Neither does He overwhelm Elijah with another intense spiritual experience; earthquake, wind, fire (the mode of God’s presence on Carmel) all pass by with no hint of God’s presence. Instead He’s in the quiet whisper.

At the end of all this, there’s no indication that Elijah is better, that his depression has lifted. His answer to God’s questions are still the same; we don’t know if his desire to die has gone. Elijah’s role hasn’t changed, though. He’s still a prophet; God’s person in God’s place at God’s time. God reminds him of that and gives him a new mission. We don’t get to hear if Elijah even carries it out; as is so often the case for many of us, there is no resolution, no suggestion that Elijah’s problems are solved. Despite his depression – or maybe because of it – Elijah still has a role to play and a job to do.

If God doesn’t dismiss someone with depression, who are we to do so? Add to Elijah’s treatment plan therapy, medication and friends willing to play God’s role, and you have the right prescription. As with Thomas’ doubt, Paul’s thorn in the flesh and more besides, the label doesn’t concern God. If Elijah were in ministry today he might be told to take a sabbatical or change careers or find a less stressful job; in 1 Kings 19, however, God simply embraces Elijah, draws close to him and reminds him of his mission. It seems that God is less choosy about who He uses than we might be.

If there’s stigma, there shouldn’t be; but it’s not my problem. Hanging from a cursed cross, outside the city walls, bearing sin that wasn’t His, we follow a stigmatised Saviour. Which is God’s master-plan for all we need; in Him, God draws close to us whose minds are in plaster. If we know others for whom this is also the case, then let us sit with them. As the stigmatised Saviour does with all of us.

Also in this series:

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

Thomas: the saint who doubted

Esther: from whom God was absent

These posts are based on a series of sermons

They

Women.

Gays.

Black people.

Trans.

Americans.

Brits.

Young.

Europeans.

Old.

Africans.

Asians.

Football fans.

Hooligans.

‘Out’ voters.

‘In’ voters.

Liberals.

Conservatives.

Lefties.

Perpetrators.

Victims.

Men.

Abusers.

White people.

Muslims.

Fundamentalists.

Migrants.

Christians.

Terrorists.

Atheists.

Image-bearers.

Divinely created.

Sinners.

Died for.

Loved.

Called.

Beckoned.

Invited.

Offered forgiveness.

Grace receivers.

In Christ.

Saved.

Adored.

Sisters.

Brothers.

Yours.

Mine.

You.

Me.

Judge not.

Worship in the minor key

What does ‘no more’ mean, really?

I ask because of some lines from a song. It’s a contemporary worship song written by British songwriter and worship leader Matt Redman. You can find the song, ‘Endless Halleujah’, squirrelled away at the end of his album ‘10,000 Reasons’.

I like the album. From someone who’s not always the greatest fan of worship music, that’s high praise. The emphasis of the collection of songs is upbeat, looking forward. It does so with confidence and faith but also a little realism. That’s especially located in the song ‘Never Once’, a song which musically and lyrically must (at least sub-consciously) take some inspiration from English football culture. The singer finds him/herself looking back how far they’ve come, looking at the scars and struggles, conscious of God’s presence along the way.

So it’s in that context I’m intrigued, bought up a little short and slightly confused by that last song on the album. It looks forward to eternity, to a time where there’s no more sin or sorrow and ‘forgotten is the minor key‘.

I understand, and of course concur, with what I think he’s getting at. The new creation, eternity in God’s presence, is hard to describe – but we can say with certainty that it will be an experience of the old order of things passing away.

So on one level I’m signed up to the direction of the song. On another I’m troubled. It’s the presence of that line. I’m no musician, but I love music. I’m not going to get technical (because I can’t); but I do know that major keys only work because minor keys also exist. Can you imagine a whole symphony, album, show in only the major key, with not a single reference or allusion to the minor key, or without its existence for contrast? No. It would be, surely, absurd or exhausting. To look at it another way, fireworks need a clear, dark night sky to shine. One only works because of the existence of the other.

I know this song is dealing in metaphor, but do we really want an eternity where the minor key is forgotten? I’m not sure. When I say ‘not sure’, I mean it in the sense of ‘not sure’; not disagree. Just not sure. I understand that eternity is an experience without sin or negativity or sickness. But are those things forgotten, or are they rather put in their right place? Won’t the songs we sing then be all the more meaningful because of what we’ve gone through? Doesn’t a risen, crowned Jesus still bear nail marks? That implies suffering isn’t forgotten; it’s better than that. It’s transcended and transfigured; we might say (as I have elsewhere) that God seems to be in the business of harmonising on evil as opposed to eradicating it.

I appreciate, though, that God has an inconsistent memory. He never forgets His people; but then He only has to glance from us to the One whose shadow we stand in, and all of a sudden our failure is forgotten, we stand clean in the light and we bear glory not disgrace. Try fitting omniscience alongside that and take a step back as your brain implodes. Never trust anyone who says they’re an expert in theology. How can a finite one possibly be an expert in a discipline that deals with the infinite?

Where are we, then? I can’t escape the idea that the scars will still be there, somehow. We’ll be physically alive, but perfectly so. We’ll be renamed, but very much ourselves. What will that sound like? It will be glorious, yes. It will be celebratory, of course. I can’t help but think, though, that there will be journeys from minor to major and back again. There will be flirtations with dissonance, resolved into previously unheard harmonies.

Try putting that to music.

Shadow Sides 5: Esther and the absence of God

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

It’s not that I don’t believe that God does dramatic things; it’s not that I haven’t had times when it feels that God is so close to me I could almost touch Him; it’s not that I believe that God’s closeness to me is dependent on my goodness. It’s just that I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a normative sense of God’s presence in the Christian life. There can be times – maybe illnesses, job losses, money problems, bereavements and the like, when God can seem far off. What do I do when the omnipresent is nowhere to be seen?

If there’s a book in the Bible where God seems absent, it’s the book of Esther. It’s a cracking read, rollicking along at a pace Lee Child would be proud of. The story it tells is one of thunder clouds on an ever-nearing horizon. Men manipulating and mistreating women, acting out of pride and territorial entitlement. Ethnic cleansing not only threatened, but marked indelibly in the diary. Manipulation and scheming. Not only is God not mentioned, not even once; He seems far off from the dark quotidian reality of sex, power and death. If there’s ever a time when one’s going to feel as if God is absent, it’s when you’re in Esther’s shoes. Used by men for sex, she and her people the Jews are facing extinction. There’s no miracles, no prophetic words, no mention of God’s name. Has God left the building?

No. He’s directing events, pushing His people into centre-stage, just where He wants them. Queen Vashti was the original Queen, dismissed by King Xerxes for having a mind of her own and not coming running when he beckoned. Insolence amongst wives across the nation was feared if news of this got out. A weak man dealt with a strong woman by pushing her out of the way. But in Esther another rose to take her place. Esther finds herself, through the misogynist actions of a king, in a place where she has a chance to have his ear and save her people from his threats of death. She’s beautiful inside and out; God doesn’t look at outside appearance, He looks at the heart. It’s Esther’s courageous heart that God uses; but King Xerxes is far from God, so all he’s interested in is Esther’s body. Both her courage and her looks are what we might call ‘natural’ gifts; they’re not the supernatural gifts of prophecy or healing or tongues we sometimes focus on. But they are what enable Esther to win a hearing from the place she gains in the king’s court. All this makes her God’s person in God’s place at God’s time. The most famous verse in the whole book is the one that comes closest to mentioning to God’s name, hinting at His presence behind the scenes:

who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

God may not be mentioned by name, but He’s there, asking Esther to act on His behalf. Does God seem absent? Have you stopped uttering His name? Does His action and His guidance seem far away? Trace the story of your life; see how He’s been at work behind the scenes. What are you ‘naturally’ good at? What makes you come alive to do?  What do you often get complimented or thanked for? Who knows, maybe  God has arranged for you to be where you are now, for such a time as this? Maybe you are the bearer of God’s presence for which you yearn so much.

I preached a version of this a couple of days ago, around the time a homophobic terrorist was killing partygoers in a Orlando nightclub. A hate-crime on a frightening scale. This is the worst-case scenario of many gay people, image-bearers of God, around the world. People I know by name are today scared. If it can happen in Orlando, it can happen here. The threat of extinction lies heavy in the air.

For such a time as this?

Also in this series:

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

Thomas: the saint who doubted

These posts are based on a series of sermons

9 (or more) things I’m going to do, and would like others to do too

The tipping point is a helpful idea, but in this case I can’t point to one. I’m sure being a (foster) dad to a young girl for a few months has been part of the picture; I’m not aware of a news item pushing me to this point, but there may be one or two sub-consciously in the mix.

This has been a long time coming. My wife and I play to very few traditional gender roles or characteristic stereotypes and archetypes. I have become increasingly aware of rape culture, male privilege and patriarchy; and on a few occasions I’ve deliberately acted to fight against them. I’ve realised, uncomfortably, that as a white British male in the early-21st Century, I’m one of the most privileged people in humanity’s history. I’m also aware that not one iota of this privilege is earned or deserved.

So I’ve taken a decision to do what I can to walk away from it. If you’re a man, I invite you to walk away from it also. Because if girls and women suffer or are held back, then I suffer and am held back. That’s what it means to be a fellow human, also made in the image of God, also part of the body of Christ. There is no such thing as a truly isolated human – especially one who follows Jesus. I’m doing this because I’m a man, a husband, a father, a friend, brother, son, citizen, Christian, minister, blogger, sports-fan, culture-consumer. Many other things, too.

I’m not seeking to start a movement or get publicity. I don’t have a hashtag for this, a website to promote, a t-shirt to sell you or a book deal to anticipate (of course, I can’t promise that none of those things will happen – but I’m not looking for them). I’m doing this because I should, and I want to. I need to, and so do you. I’m doing this in a public forum so that I know I’ve done it and I can’t get out of it. As well as inviting you to join in, I’m inviting you to hold me to this (lovingly), especially if you’re a woman. Do it sneeringly, nastily, self-righteously, or in an attempt to show me that it’s doomed and useless, then I’ll try to ignore you. Do it to help me do it better, then I’ll listen to you and I’ll try to act.

So here’s what I’m going to try and do. There aren’t ten of them because that would just be too comfortable, and it would suggest completion. If you have other suggestions, then please make them.

1. Take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions.

2. Raise my foster daughter to insist that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

3. Raise my foster son to take responsibility for his own thoughts and actions, and to                 teach him that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

4.  Act on the basis that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

5.  Critique and challenge men when I become aware of them acting out of rape culture,            patriarchy and privilege.

6.  Without evading my responsibilities or God’s call, I will step away from an                                 assignment when I know of a woman who could do as good or better a job than me.

7.  Consciously empty myself of privilege when I become aware that I am                                         acting out of it; and to examine myself for signs of acting out of rape culture,                             patriarchy and privilege.

8.  Allow others to point out to me when I may be unaware that I am acting out of                         rape culture, patriarchy and privilege.

9.  Work towards breaking patterns of rape culture, patriarchy and privilege in                               church ministry.

 

Fear and love, Or How Horror Movies Help Me Worship

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The Bible, Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8

How many times have I heard that verse? So many.

Quoted so often, so many times, sometimes in relation to so many things that I’m doing that people think I shouldn’t be doing.

You see, there are certain types of shows and films and books that certain types of Christians think I shouldn’t be seeing or watching. Maybe it’s the language in them; maybe it’s the fact that some of them could be classified as ‘horror’. Some examples of titles I’ve enjoyed …  The PassageThe Walking DeadParanormal ActivityPenny DreadfulThe Blair Witch Project; Pan’s Labyrinth; Alien; 28 Days Later. There are plenty of others. If you’ve never heard of those, Google is (in this case) your friend.

I’ve had that verse used on me a few times. I’ve also thought more than once about if I should even write this post, admit to these interests in such a public way. Will it cause people to stumble’? Well, if it causes you to stumble then don’t read it on your phone whilst walking along a busy street.

Those titles don’t fit with that verse, I’m often told.

I’m not so sure.

Fear is true and real. I get scared, sometimes. I’m scared of bees, wasps, certain people and a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur. I know perfect love drives out fear. But that verse (the one about perfect love driving out fear) is about how we relate to God and His judgement, not movies and books (or even drone warfare or terrorism or cancer or drunk drivers or a lot of other things I’ve heard this verse misused in relation to).

Sometimes  – well, once or twice – people stop and ask me why I watch or read these things. Because I enjoy them, and they’re true. Fear is part of life; I find I know the sort of films and books I’ll enjoy and the sort I won’t. I find it helps me, makes me feel more alive – and yes, somehow more in awe of the God who holds me in His palm – if I get on a roller-coaster like the ones I’ve named. I know the roller-coaster can’t hurt me, really. I know that in watching a show about a virus outbreak (for example, about which I used to have nightmares), I know it can’t hurt me so I’m less likely to actually be fearful of it even if the show itself makes me jump and sweat and maybe even say something naughty out loud.

I find that when people use that verse on me about these shows and books and films, they usually follow it up with ideas of what I should watch or which they enjoy (and they rarely do it in a way that I would call ‘lovely’). Often I find that what they suggest to be dull, or just not very good. I have a ‘good’ degree in English literature. I read and watch ‘good’ stuff, too, by that measure. But I also know that Macbeth is about witchcraft and child murder; Hamlet is a ghost story; King Lear features an eye-gouging; I’m not even going to start on Titus Andronicus (that’s all Shakespeare, by the way). You should see some of the images John Donne uses about God. People who know about these things probably won’t be surprised to learn I have a love for the work of Shakespearean influencers/influencees John Webster and Christopher Marlowe. Have you even heard of those two? They’re two of the greater English writers. Ever. You may not have heard of them; they’re utterly brilliant, and contain some ‘fearful’ stuff. Actually, have you even read the Old Testament – properly? Some of the stuff in there doesn’t fit my definition of ‘pure and lovely’, so please leave off me a bit.

I find this stuff cleansing, cathartic, life-enhancing. I feel more alive and more thankful to my creator for it afterwards. Yes, I sleep better for it. I may still be able to physically feel the shock and fear of the season finale of The Walking Dead this year, but thinking about it helps me sleep.

I’m not expecting you to feel the same. I have no problem if you only watch things rated 13 or below. If that’s what helps you, that’s great. But I’ve arrived where I am before God, in relationship with people (especially my wife who really gets me and tells me if I’m out of line or wrong or watching something I shouldn’t). And actually there are a few Christians out there who enjoy this stuff too and could do with talking about it in church as well as out of church.

None of it defines me; none of it changes my worldview. But sometimes it makes me just a bit happier, a bit more grateful to be alive. And yes, even a bit more worshipful of the one I’m told I should love and fear at the same time.

Bored

I’ve been hearing the complaint ‘I’m bored‘ quite a bit recently. I suspect it’s because I’m still relatively new to this parenting business; give me a couple of years and I’ll be, well, bored of hearing it and I’ll stop noticing it. I haven’t found a skilful retort to it yet, and I doubt I ever will.

The truth is that I spend much of my life bored. Not in terms of needing entertainment or occupation; between my job, family life, TV, movies, books, dogs and video games there’s plenty of stuff for me to do.

No. I’m bored of something that’s always there.

I’m 42 and I’ve been in pain for over 16 years. Illness. Pain. Sickness. I’m bored of it. I’m bored of the audible crunch of bones in my neck and spine when I turn my head on a cold morning; I’m bored of medication every day; I’m bored of explaining my condition; I’m bored of having to spend so much money fighting it; I’m bored of doctor’s appointments; I’m bored of not being able to play football; I’m bored of being sore after walking, standing, sitting or lying for more than an hour (all told I do a lot of walking, standing, sitting or lying for more than an hour); I’m bored of answering the question ‘does your illness define you?’, a question only ever asked by people with no chronic illness themselves; I’m bored of it affecting my sex ‘life’; I’m bored of not a single Christian ever having had a ‘word of knowledge’ about Ankylosing Spondylitis because they’ve probably never heard of it and certainly can’t spell it (and yes, that includes people from Bethel as well as your personal favourite healing ministry); I’m bored of well-meaning but ignorant advice; I’m bored of the guilt at not doing the physio I should be doing; I’m bored of doing the physio I should be doing; I’m bored of missing out; I’m bored of being tired just because I’m ill; I’m bored of my lowered immune system; I’m bored of people telling me about their ‘bad back’ because they think they relate; I’m bored of people thinking they can’t talk to me about their stuff if they know I’m sore; I’m bored of people asking ‘how are you’ and not really wanting the answer; I’m bored of the voiced and unvoiced judgements … if only you’d do xxx then you’d be better, you are a bit overweight, after all; I’m bored of having to opt out of moving chairs and tables because it will hurt and worrying about what people think of me for opting out; I’m bored of listening to that worry and helping move the table and then being in pain for a day; I’m bored of choosing between playing with the kids or being in pain later.

And here’s a truth. Others are bored of all that too. It’s part of the curse of chronic illness. Sometimes I wish I had an acute illness. Cancer, or something else that has an end point for better or worse. When people first find out about your chronic illness, they’re sometimes interested. They ask questions which you answer wearily because they show interest and you think they might want to help or ‘walk with you’. And they do, for a while. They pray with and for you. Maybe they help with something that you can’t do. But then, mostly, often, they get bored. They never say it, of course; they may not even be aware of it themselves. But at some point it becomes clear that this disease isn’t going away, that it isn’t my fault, that the prayers aren’t going to be answered like that. One time a couple of people offered to sit and pray with me regularly for my AS. I was thrilled. We met twice. So people back off; they don’t walk with me and my wife. They check in every now on. But they haven’t got time for me and my illness. A small handful have. But people back off. They get bored of my need, my story, my pain. People get bored just walking with me, with no apparent end to the journey.

I’m bored of that. And deeply, pathetically, tearfully, grateful for those who do just keep walking at my pace. Which is slow.

Oh so fucking slow.