On winning the battle, for once

It’s hard to pin it down to a moment. For me, depression is not something that I encounter in an instant. It has crept up on me. Like my decision to become a Christian, it’s something that I gradually became aware of rather then felt turn itself on in an instant. Like my faith, it ebbs and flows. I may have been in this round of depression for more than 4 years, but like my faith my depression ebbs and flows. There are days it’s there, but I’m still scarcely aware of it (shamefully, in the case of my faith; joyfully in the case of depression). There are days it snaps at my heels occasionally, like the arrow prayers prayers I remember to shoot off in a moment of particular need. Then there are the days when I wake up and its all I know. These days are few and far between in terms of my faith – the days when my faith consumes, envelops, enfolds me. Similarly, there are a few days when depression is all I know. Make no mistake, they are there. The black dog isn’t so much snapping at my heels occasionally as it is demanding to be taken for a long walk, curled up unmovingly on my lap, or snarling and spitting in my face. Like the days when my faith just happens joyfully and freely, I can rarely point to a reason or a trigger for the depression overwhelming me. It’s just there, and I have to accept its reality.
Those days are hard, nightmarishly so. If they were the whole of my reality these last few years, I wouldn’t have been able to function at all. Mercifully, they are relatively few. But just as I can’t point to one reason for their coming, neither can I fully explain the experience of the last few weeks.
Because for the last few weeks, for the first time in years, I’ve felt like I may be winning the battle. Not that the battle is won. Nothing like that – yet. But that we may may be travelling in the right direction. There are a few triggers that I think have contributed. A time of prayer with a friendly, godly soul (hardly the first I’ve had, so what makes this one different, I don’t know). A dignaosis of ADHD, and the treatment that has gone alongside that. Slightly warmer weather. But in other respects there is no rational reason for an upturn; our financial stresses have, if anything, got worse not better over this time. I still have my other chronic conditions with which to wrestle. My father’s state of health has worsened. I still have a tendency to melancholy.
So it feels odd. One of my medications has been lowered in dose. A small, but nice, moment. Temptations to suicidal thoughts or other self-punishments still come, but it’s as if they are kept in a box rather than erupting all over me and those around me. I have no way of knowing if this will last, or if I will stop here, or if I will continue to make more positive progress from here. But for now I’m enjoying the sun on my back, the taste in my mouth and the sense of walking more lightly.
As the prophet sang, walk on, with all that you can’t leave behind.
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What’s normal anyway?

To those whom much has been given much will be expected – or something like that. It’s the Bible’s equivalent of the maxim directed at Spiderman: ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ Much what, though?
To two learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, ankylosing spondylitis, I recently had added a diagnosis of AD(H)D. I but the ‘H’ in brackets because we’re not sure yet quite how much ‘h’ there is in me – the hyperactivity of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I’ve been on Ritalin, the medication of choice for this, for a couple of months now and the effect of it has been transformative. Is this what I’ve been missing out on all this time? Does everybody really have the capacity to sit down and just get on with stuff and not be fighting a permanent battle of distraction? I thought my magpie mind was symptomatic of the human condition, not a quirk of my brain.
There’s often a worry with treating this kind of thing that in doing so you lose some of the spark that makes someone unique, the fire of creativity, the fingerprint of the personality. I’m still learning about that, and how to make sure my whole family gets the benefit of the more focussed me – not just those who happen to come across my orbit in working hours. There’s much for me to learn, and yes I’ve been leant A Useful Book that does actually appear to be useful.
It’s quite a cocktail of diagnoses now. One would be more than enough, but there’s web of corollary, apparently between them. People with A.S. get depressed; people with depression get anxious. People with ADHD have learning disabilities. Chicken? Egg? Who knows.
None of them are going to kill me (I suppose you could argue that depression could, but you know what I mean); all of them are limiting, restricting in some way. It’s quite a collection of limits that I’m constantly learning to live within, to navigate around. Someone said to me that I now have a better idea of what makes me unique and special which is an interesting way to look at it. I’ve been living with me for a long time now and don’t think of me as unique – in my eyes, I’m normal. No matter if I’m normal or unique (or both), it feels as if this collection of defining characteristics is enough to be getting on with. If much is required of whom much is given, then what exactly is the much expected of me? Some days getting out of bed feels like an achievement (I spent 3 hours in a hospital waiting room for someone else yesterday; as a result of the dodgy chairs my A.S. is flaring which makes every moment of ‘normality’ today a victory); some days, filling out a form by hand is too much (thanks, dysgraphia!). Is the much that’s expected of me just to live, exist in a way that most people would recognise? Or is there more? What’s God’s call? To live within the limits, or transcend them like a bad afternoon tv-movie?
If only we all came with some sort of personalised users manual, telling how to get the best out of us. Everyone has to wrestle with these issues, of course – what am I for? It’s just that when you seem to have more quirks than others, it feels trickier to navigate.
We don’t come with user manuals, of course. We do come with an image, an imprint of a creator but that feels increasingly marred and chipped and cracked. And how do you speak of that when there’s so much about you that feels like it doesn’t bear the stamp of a wise and good creator? Is the image of God about perfection because God is perfect, or is it something more complex than that? There’s something there about our calling  – to steward creation on God’s behalf, and that creation presumably includes ourselves. So what does stewarding myself mean when the reflection is warped?
Questions, and few answers. Assuming that I now have the last of the diagnoses – at least for a while – maybe I can start to discern a way forward. Today this is less of dead-weight then it is a challenge to be surmounted, a puzzle to solve. It doesn’t oppress me today, but it does present these questions to which I struggle discern answers.
My only conclusion: normal is an illusion. There is both no such thing as normal; and also that normal is whatever your state is, wherever you habitually land. It’s not a target to be reached; if you see it that way it will always be out of reach. Instead it’s simply what you are.

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

Shadow Sides 2: Paul and the problem that won’t go away

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

Think of the man who wrote a good part of the New Testament (Paul) and the first words that come to mind probably aren’t “man whose prayer didn’t get answered”. There are good many other phrases that might come to your mind: genius, great writer, leader, certain, inspired, ethical, apostle, convert, road to Damascus, church-planter, missionary. Or maybe there are other, less-complementary words that come to your mind (of which the equally Biblical ‘hard to understand’ may be the mildest). Love him or hate him, he’s one of the single most influential people in the history of the Christian faith. It’s apparent that God used him to communicate some eternal truths and to help us understand what the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection as told in the 4 gospels means for us.

So what sort of person was he? What, when pressed, defined him in his own eyes and, most importantly, in God’s eyes? We get a fascinating insight into that in the letter we now call 2 Corinthians. It’s markedly different to the CV’s of the influencers in the early 21st-century:

I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.

And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut.

If I have to “brag” about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus

(2 Corinthians 11:23-33, The Message)

We want our leaders to be in control; Paul admits to anxiety.

We expect leaders to have good relationships; Paul’s had arguments with friends.

We expect moral cleanliness from those in charge; Paul openly admits to plenty of time in prison and to being on the receiving end of brutal punishments.

We want to follow people characterised by strong competence; Paul invites us to follow him because he’s weak and he’s suffered.

He boasts about the things that have humiliated him and led to suffering because it’s in them that he finds himself to be similar to Jesus. Jesus, so anxious that He sweat drops of blood; feared God had abandoned Him; was betrayed and let down by close friends; was punished by the powers-that-be.

That’s not all. For Paul, there was more.

I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

(2 Corinthians 12:7-9, The Message)

Paul, so close to God that Jesus speaks directly to him; Paul, so inspired by God that 2,000 years we still read what he wrote to keep us going; Paul, writer of some of the most influential words in human history; this Paul has a problem he can’t shake, that God won’t take away no matter how much he pleads. It’s probably a physical problem – one serious enough to make him ‘beg’ for relief.

I know how that feels. I’ve been in pain every day for more than 16 years. On bad days, I’m told by people who know about these things, my levels of pain are worse than those of childbirth. I’ve begged for it be removed, and so have others on my behalf, many more than 3 times. Newsflash: I’m not as close to God as St. Paul.

It limits me. I’m also clinically depressed and anxious; I recently ended a church business meeting by breaking down in tears. I’m limited by mind and my body.

That, says Paul, is the point.

God’s fond of those who struggle, close to those in pain. Because when you’re weak, His strength is seen through you; His power is made apparent because mine is stripped away.

Got it all together? Sorted? Ducks in a row? That could be your biggest problem.

Painfully aware of limitations and dis-ability? Wrestling with weakness? Desperate for relief? God’s especially close to you.

 Also in this series:

Moses – frustrated and angry at God’s people

These posts are based on a series of sermons.

Robin Williams and Gaza: it just got a little bit darker

image from popwatch.ew.com

Not him. Please not him.

Robin Williams was one of the first people to make me laugh as a professional in the cause. He died today, apparently at his own hand, in the throes of an ongoing battle with depression and addiction.

There’s a lot of rough stuff, dark stuff, painful stuff in the world right now, but this makes it all a little darker.

For people like me, he was the comic voice of a generation. We grew up on his shows and his movies, laughing even at the jokes we didn’t want to admit to teenage friends that we didn’t really understand. He also – let’s be honest here, it does no one any good to gloss over – made some total rubbish. He could ‘do serious’ so very well. Which shouldn’t be a surprise because good comedy is just as hard to carry off, if not harder, than good drama. I have a little acting experience and know that to be true. To be as funny as he was took real genius; so drama should and did come easily to him. In all cases he just needed the right script – the better to improvise from and around.

That’s one reason this news overshadows much else, for a time. When you lose someone you grew up with, you need to take some moments.

Sadder still that he’s another in the litany of those wrestling with mental illness and who wanted out. We need to pause when we hear this news because to those of us who struggle with depression or love those who do, moments like this can feel like a dangerous affirmation of the choice to end the struggle on our terms. If he’s done it, why can’t I?

You can say as much you like that it doesn’t work like that and it’s worth hanging on, but it makes no difference; possibly suicidal depression has a dark internal logic as irresistible as a whirlpool’s pull. News like this can seem to add a little more gravity’s inexorable, inevitable power.

So pay attention. This matters, as much as Iraq and Gaza. Differently, but as much. Do not condemn those who seemed unmoved by Gaza or Iraq but appear to be paralysed by the death of someone they’d never met. You’re on dangerous, holy ground if you’re with them.

If you are feeling suicidal, or know someone who may be, please click here

John, the wild outsider and the gift of being yourself

This post was originally written as part of Diverse Church’s month long study of Luke’s Gospel in August 2014.  It is based on Luke Chapter 3, which you should read first, and have open beside you as you read the post. 

We know about John the Baptist, don’t we? He’s the one who prepares the way for the adult Jesus to come on the scene and do his thing. He’s the one with a troubling message about repentance; he’s a bit fire and brimstone. He’s the one who seems a little outlandish, existing on the strangest of diets and bringing dark messages.

Strange indeed. He certainly wouldn’t fit any of the boxes of the day, nor those of today. What a calling he has. After decades of prophetic silence, the word of God comes out of a clear desert sky to a long-haired itinerant locust eater (v2). That word is one that points the way at what’s now no longer far-off, no longer a distant possibility, no longer longed for. Messiah is coming, and all had best prepare or be found wanting (v4-9).

Like all preachers, he’s asked the ‘yes, but how?’ question (v10). First it’s the rich and privileged in the crowd who ask (v11), as if already sensing that the Messiah won’t quite be what they were expecting; the answer they get certainly confirms that. From there, the net widens to include those so often counted-out: the dreaded extortioners in the name of government (v12-13) and soldiers of the occupying force (v14). Aren’t they the types the Messiah is meant to be overthrowing? Jesus’ ministry of justice and subversion is being prophetically anticipated.

The result is disarming. John tells his listeners that he only exists to point away from himself, that the baptism he offers is only a hint or taste of the direct connection with God Himself that Jesus will bring (v17-18). Not that this stops John from going further, antagonising the powers-that-be with such dangerous explosiveness that he’s locked away where he can’t be heard any more (v19-20).

John’s calling is a dangerous, troubling one that ends up with him in terminal trouble. It’s explosive in that it detonates a hole in the expectations of the religious for the real Messiah to walk through. It’s prophetic in that in doing so he lays foundations for Jesus’ addiction to gravitating towards those on the outside; the rejected, hurt and ignored.

I’m an evangelical church leader, of a charismatic flavour. That’s my theology and practice; I don’t like everything that people put in those boxes, but it’s the box that’s closest to fitting me. I also have an ongoing wrestle with my own mental health. I’ve suffered three bouts of depression since starting as a church leader; at times I’ve toyed with suicide. I’m still in the midst of one of those bouts of depression, with some post-traumatic anxiety thrown in for good measure. That’s a result of having lead my church in Cape Town through the murder by terrorists of one of our number who was also a close personal friend. Clinically depressed and dealing with my own grief as well as the community’s, I had to handle a nation’s media and run a funeral broadcast on live television which was attended by Desmond Tutu. Eleven months on I’m still reeling.

I don’t fit. These anxious, black-dog hounded parts of me which increasingly seem to be my daily reality do not fit the box of the charismatic evangelical. They don’t fit the take-it-to-the-cross, ecstatic worship which seems to characterise much of my tribe. Not that I’m crticising that, it’s just that it doesn’t seem to fit.

Yet. The more I talk, the more I try – and occasionally succeed – to talk about this, to testify to this reality, the more it seems something explodes around me which allows a real Messiah to walk through the smoke and rubble. A Messiah who does allow us and enable us to be ecstatically joyful; but who also sweat drops of blood in anticipation of trauma and who wept at gravesides. Who died as well as rose.

The detonation isn’t my doing; in my better moments I’m just trying to be myself and describe that self to sisters and brothers. That seems to be explosive, to draw the outsiders in. I find when I talk, others respond; they come out a little bit further into the blinking light of reality and recognition. It’s very scary, and not all the reactions are helpful. However the Messiah I’m creating a space for has been there first.

Not only does He choose to identify with me (v21-22), which is mind-boggling enough in itself; but He models such an approach. He lives a life of bringing it out in the open in such a way that must be part of the reason that so many of those on the outside are sucked into His orbit.

Look at that genealogy (v23-38). No really; look at that genealogy! These were His credentials. These credentials mattered in the Middle East of the first century. David – a man after God’s heart … and an adulterous, lying murderer. Adam – the one who ate the fruit in the first place, for goodness sake! Yes, there’s some heroes in there. There’s also some people who’d be better kept out of the public eye for the sake of reputation. Further than that, there’s a whole load of people in there of whom I can’t even spell the name, yet alone have any idea what (if anything) was special about them.

What shall we say, then; what shall we be? Just ourselves. Say and be ourselves. In all our broken, not fitting, unvarnished, tarnished glory. For in the hands of the real Messiah, that’s explosive.

I’m sick

I’m sick.

I’m sick of taking tablets and injecting myself.

I’m sick of doctor’s appointments.

I’m sick of pain.

I’m sick of being dependent.

I’m sick of being limited.

I’m sick of having ‘to be brave’ when in reality I’m not.

I’m sick of wondering if it will get better or not.

I’m sick of the ideas people have about my sickness when they know nothing about it.

I’m sick of looking at people with no major health problems and feeling jealous.

I’m sick and I am strong.

I’m sick and I accept that.

I’m sick of being lonely in crowds.

I’m sick and I laugh about it.

I’m sick of the well-meaning people who get it badly wrong.

I’m sick of explaining that there’s much I can do, actually.

I’m sick, and with that come many gifts and insights otherwise unavailable to me.

I’m sick and I need you.

I’m sick and I know what it does to me.

I’m sick and I get scared.

I’m sick and that changes what I care about.

I’m sick and I have perspective.

I’m sick and that leads me to great thankfulness.

I’m sick which means I am accustomed to waiting.

I’m sick and there are days I feel helpless.

I’m sick and that costs money.

I’m sick and that brings the judgements of others with it.

I’m sick which means I have lost much.

I’m sick and sometimes I don’t want to talk about it.

I’m sick and the reactions of others causes me concern.

I’m sick and sometimes I act as if I’m not.

I’m sick which means I grieve.

Inspired by 35 things you may not know about my invisible illness