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Archive for March, 2011

A lesson in humility

How often do you sit down to read the Bible, or whatever Scripture your faith is based on?

I’ve been trying to get back into regular Bible study recently; sitting down to read was one of the first things to slide when my depression started, and once my discipline with that disappeared, my prayer life also lost its foundation and before I knew it, I was turning away from God with all my might, as opposed to leaning into Him. ‘Oops’ doesn’t quite cover it. When I’m reading God’s word daily, I know that my prayer life follows suite and that I am more tuned in and grounded, and therefore making time for this should be a complete no-brainer. Sadly, this has not been the case as like some people, and more than most in all honesty, I can be a bit of an idiot. In the last few weeks, with my concentration still pretty poor, and my ability to grasp new information still suffering, I’ve concentrated on revisiting sections that really caught me the first time round, and finding comfort in passages that spoke so strongly six months ago when I was first embarking on formal scripture reading. It’s getting better, but is still hit and miss, for no reason other than sometimes, I chose that extra fifteen minutes in bed in the morning, or if I’m having a vulnerable day, whipping my NIV out in the hospital library for some quick ‘Jesus time’ in front of my peers, feels like a challenge I can easily turn down, unlike so many of the things I struggle with on a daily basis. I am not good at discipline, at the moment.

When Jesus instructs us on how to pray in Matthew 6, I think His words are also relevant to private Bible study – that it’s best done somewhere safe and quiet, away from prying eyes and questioning faces, the hustle and bustle of communal spaces and the relentless conversations that flow around us in rivers of sound. For those of us with a room of our own, Virginia Woolf style, this should be fairly straightforward, yet I know a lot of Christians don’t quite manage it, myself included.

Yesterday, I found some change to put in the hat of a homeless man I could see up ahead, sitting on the street, in the rain, without a jacket, at 8pm on a chilly evening. What was he doing as people passed him by in multiple laters of clothing, bearing umbrellas and chatting on mobile phones, on their way home? He was reading the Bible. He wasn’t sitting in a cosy chair with a cup of coffee and some classical music on low, in the background like the folks in the café behind him. He wasn’t somewhere warm and safe, getting his reading done before watching the 10pm news and turning in for the night. He wasn’t not-reading his Bible as, that afternoon, he was a little over-sensitive to what people might say or a bit worried that someone would see him with it open in his lap and decide not to drop some money in after-all, and hey, he was hungry and didn’t want to take the risk. He was sitting and proudly, openly, studying the Bible. The rain was falling on the passage he had it open to and I could see that the pages were already crinkled from being damp for days on end. The annotations in the margins were blurred from the water coming down, yet he was still reading on in God’s word, Hebrews to be precise (we had a good chat about it). If he can read it on the streets in a downpour, surely I can read it in a well lit room with a good supply of chocolate biscuits?

I don’t know about you, but I think my Bible reading habits just got a pretty big smack round the ear from a pretty big stick. James 2:5 reads: Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?

I LOVE the book of James. I always think he’s such a no-half-measures kind of guy who really puts his money where his mouth is, and walks what he talks, for an extra mile each time. James doesn’t really go in for ‘couldashouldawoulda’ excuses. No empty promises, says James. ‘Maybe-perhaps-sometime-later’ Bible reading isn’t really good enough. NB to blog, words without actions = meaningless, and that includes Bible study – I’ll report back at some point on whether I do gain that discipline – hold me accountable, please.

This homeless man is a whole lot richer in faith than I am. If you’re still reading, why not pick your Bible up afterwards if you haven’t already today? Why not see what unusual places you can read it in this week? It might just inspire someone, like this man inspired me.

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Time, Love, Time

I was back in the counselling hot-seat yesterday and it was a bit unusual as, although I’d really psyched myself up for talking about some of the things I’ve been mulling over the last week or so (seeing my parents has made me think a lot about the years my dad was drinking again, and how disordered our relatiohship still is – and both are things  I find hard to express), L and I ended up just talking about (or rather, she talked and I sat and wished I could run away and hide) about how there’s so much I don’t want to raise just yet and how from her perspective, I am putting a lot of pressure on myself to get it out in the open so I can move on and get through this. There’s something pretty miserable about being crap at being counselled to be honest. However, in realising that there’s no way I’ll have said all I need to say, learned all I need to learn, and put myself back together by the end of the sixth session in two weeks (I initially had to sign up for six), I do feel less pressure to try and force myself to ‘perform’, which, when I get stuck and unsure, and closed off, just makes me feel worse and as though this is something else I’m failing at. Pushing through it when mentally I’m still trying to resist being open takes so much energy that I just don’t have at the moment. If I imagine finishing counselling in a few months as opposed to a few weeks, the time I have to get through extends, and I change the odds. It still feels an awful lot like betting on a three-legged horse, and not in a Seabiscuit, rooting for the endearing underdog way, more like a ‘seriously, just give this horse to some Frenchmen to make into pies and leave the betting to the real men’ kind of way. NB must remember to stay away from metaphorical Frenchmen. And probably real ones, if we’re being at all realistic.

In my heart, I was afraid of what it would mean if I reached that six week benchmark and was still so resolutely not-ok. The last year has been benchmark after benchmark of hoping medication would work, then finding it hasn’t, then changing the dose, and finding that still doesn’t help, then waiting for Christmas to be over, exams to finish, the winds to change, the earth to move, the sun to rise, you get the picture. It’s frustrating. All the emails I get from supervisors and medical school staff indicate that I should be moving further forward than I am, and it’s hard to accept that this is something that I am only able to do at a snail’s pace (possibly even the pace of an unfortunate French snail), and even more difficult to have the courage and sense of self to say that to them. As a medical student and hard-grafter, I’m so used to living by each deadline and knowing what needs doing by when – without my diary, I’m pretty lost. In the last few weeks, being extremely organised to the point of obsession has helped me keep going and tick things off the long list I have to complete.  But, I’m starting to learn that I can’t put a deadline on healing and recovery, although, of everything, I so wish I could. I can’t even make a timeline. I can’t set myself rules and goals and expectations, apart from doing what I can each day. The sense of unpredicatibility is unnerving.  My heart continues to beat out the time signature of my life, but will not be dictated to by my sense of scheduling. It doesn’t pay much attention to cries of accelerando, heart! Accelerando! I have to just live alongside it, and let it sit with me until I’m through.

The Bible has a lot to say about time, and these three sections in particular come to mind. James 4:13 that says there is no point planning for tomorrow for you never quite know what it will bring, which I take as a reminder that as Rabbie Burns would say, the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley. No planning can be 100%. No one can predict what’s heading round the corner or coming through the front door. Uncertainty is a heavy cloak mankind must learn to bear, balanced with the shields of faith on sale in old Ephesus. As a Christian, I suppose you could argue time does not matter – eventually, we’ll all be outside of time; we’ll be with God in Heaven. As far as I know, no one wears Rolexes there; once you’re standing in eternity, being fifteen minutes late sort of seems like a daft thing to worry about.

When we let got of time, we let go of a lot of worries. God is the only one of us who lives outside of time, unchanged and unaltered by it, seeing it as just another dimension to life on a sinful Earth that one day will cease to be.  When I think of being outside of time, I think about those conversations you have in the middle of the night, with a close friend, heart on heart, when morning seems so far away, and there is so much stillness that somehow everything except that rare feeling that you’re in the exact same place as someone else at the  exact same time, seems to fade. It’s not often that we get to live outside of time. Similarly, Ecclesiastes has that well known section on everything having its own time and place under the sun  –  a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak. Perhaps, I’ve done my time of tearing, and now is the time for mending and healing. It says nothing about all those times being equal in length or measure. It says nothing about there being a clear signpost for when you’re switching from one extreme to the other. It says nothing of having a choice about what time and place you find yourself in each conflicting phase. We just have to know that those extremes of experience will come and go, chop and change, and be wide-eyed and open handed, ready to accept them as they come. An order of Goliath proportions – large, but arguable vanquishable with the right weapons and a little ingenuity.

Lastly, Romans, eloquent and emotive Romans, the book you can count on to bring you home each and every time – the sat-nav epistle by a conveniently well-travelled Apostle – reminds us that the only person with perfect timing, every time, all time, is God. He is the only one who stands outside of time, unchanged by it, and unafraid. God has enough time, for you and me. Chapter 5:6 says, just at the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly’. He didn’t’ show up awkwardly early before the world was fully ready to weigh up the pros and cons and finally decide after conducting several opinion polls that moving for Jesus was the best move they could make. He didn’t wreak havoc by turning up late and leaving a string of people in a very scary, un-saved lurch, as though they’d missed getting the stamp on their passport needed to get in Heaven. Jesus came at the right time. He keeps our time. He gives us, time.

This is a song by Josh Ritter, whom I love mostly for his music, but also because he’s the only musician I have introduced my younger brother (who has to think he’s more cool than the rest of us in order to function, or so it seems….) to that he also thinks is great (our relationship suffered quite the blow when I asked him to download me some Girls Aloud, though a mutual love of Josh is slowly rectifying that..…). My favourite song of his is probably ‘Monster Ballads’, but I also love this one. When I listen to this, it reminds me that changing the speed I try to live at isn’t always a bad thing – by going at the right pace, I’ll get there that much sooner. Less haste, more speed seem like wise words right now. It’s only a change of time, love, time.

 

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Continuing going to church has been one of the biggest obstacles I’ve had – it’s bad enough when depression separates you from everyone around you, but when it separates you from everyone around you who is also tuned into God, it’s even worse. Some of the times I’ve felt furthest gone were when I’ve stood in the middle of a service, surrounded by  singing and praising, and felt more cut-off and more alone than words can even say. I went to church last night, and it was….strange. I’m not big on gestures of faith at the best of times, so when everyone was instructed to hold out their hands with all the baggage they’d brought in with them, turn them palms down to lay those burdens away, and then hold them back skywards to accept willingly from the Lord, I was majorly struggling. I felt like I couldn’t put my issues down where someone else might abuse them, and I couldn’t hold out my hands and truly believe that God has something in this mess for me, that He gives gifts and promises freely and does not deal out heartache or pain. I felt myself wincing away from the hands I imagine reaching towards mine. Please don’t make me look you in the eye, God. Despite the likes of  Luke 11:11, I still expect God to dole out painful discipline before he gets to comforting. I shy away from the presence of the one I know I need, but still find so hard to accept. I suppose, all this says is that I have not yet abandoned my independence and learnt to properly trust and lean on God, and although this churlishness pains me, at the moment, guarding myself seems the only way through.

A common metaphor for faith (courtesy of Mike Cain in Real Life Jesus, one of the first Christian books I read) is that it’s a branch there to catch us as we fall from a perilous height. We all put our faith in different things, whether it’s God (in whatever  form), or materialism, or family, or status. The difference between God and those other sources of comfort is that God’s branch never breaks – no matter how heavy we land on it, or how much we threaten to yank it from its roots, it stands firm. Unfortunately, this is often not the case for ‘worldly’ idols. As for God’s tree of life – its branches soften our fall. Its roots refuse to let us plummet. The only problem to this is that in order for the branch of the Lord to catch us on the way down, we have to reach out and grab it. Although this seems so easy, seems like reaching for water when dying of thirst, or for gasping for air when struggling to breathe, this is what so many find so difficult, and is certainly something I struggle with. I know I need God. I know I need to reach out and grab hold before I fall over a very final edge. I know I need to see that the branch is there, waiting for me, and accept it fully. But I still turn away. I still like to think some secret parachute tucked away in a back pocket might come to my rescue and prevent me having to admit that I need that branch threatening to pass me by. I still like to think I can do it on my own.

I’m getting to that dreaded stage again where I’m starting to lean towards acceptance that this isn’t going to change, and I might just feel like this forever, however long that might be. It’s one thing understanding that coming back up isn’t going to be easy or straight-foward, but knowing it, week on week, month on month, is another challenge altogether. If God is a branch, it doesn’t seem that daft to conclude that recovery could be a flower that blooms and dies with the seasons. And all I know is that I’m trying to grab for that elusive branch with all my energy and all my heart, but at the moment, it all just feels so out of reach, past my fingertips so that even when I do find that courage of conviction, I still keep falling. If anyone has any tips on bringing the branch closer in, they would be much appreciated.

 

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I wrote this a while ago, but it sort of seems to fit with where I am now too. Slightly more hopeful than yesterday. Almost. Sometimes you’ve just got to write it out, don’t you?

 

It’s been a long few months. I paused and remembered the day I finally stopped running from my pursuers and felt my heart shift into a new and uncertain key I could not dance to. I lay down, exhausted and covered with the dirt from the road, and waited for the one I had come to call friend. I waited for death. I lay there in the dust of the day, broken down, weary and alone, with no strength in my arms to push up, or song in my soul to push on through. At last, I’d burnt out. There was nothing else to do or say. I was finished.

Why are you so downcast, Oh my soul? Why so afraid? Why so fearful?

The voices around me chided me to get back on my horse, but it is not there. My horse is not there and all I can see is miles of road fading to sky. How can I keep going without my horse? How can I keep going without those things I have learned to put my weight on? I lay there, face-down, tired of the journey and tired of living. Each solitary heartbeat seemed to mock and jeer- I am still here. I am still here. I was cold and motionless, bleeding out of so many wounds I could not count them. See, I am one with the road. I covered my eyes and shook out tangled hair and waited, wished for death, who seemed so powerful, so elusive. He did not come. For the longest time, I stayed in limbo. Death let me down and I could not chase him.

When the lights came down and all lay still, I listened to the smallest voice in my heart that before that moment I’d been able to ignore. I listened to my soul weeping for the one I missed more than anything, the one I could call Home.

“Big brother, protector, counsellor, where are you? Where are you, most trusted friend? Where are you, my rescuer? I strain ears and eyes but cannot hear you, cannot see you. You cast no shadow here. The wind does not carry your call. Yet, here I am, I am here. I need you. I need, you.”

Need – such a small word, such a great meaning, my heart said. Again, I spoke –

“I need, I need you to stand between me and these forces bent on my destruction. I need you to hide me under your cloak and shield me from the storm. I need you to bind up my wounds and salve my cuts, to wash the grit from my eyes, and over your shoulder, your steady shoulder, carry me home.”

No-one came. No-one came for the longest time. The sky grew darker. Now, it grows darker. I waited.

“Where are you, saviour? Where are you, redeemer? Am I so undeserving that you leave me to die? Am I so distasteful to you, so stained in iniquity, that my destruction would please you, would satisfy you? Am I so unimportant, so floundering in faith and so unsure of footing, that you would turn your back and leave me here forever, calling your name, aching for your gaze to find mine?”

“You are my redeemer, my fighter, my knight in armour. You are my leading light. You are my hero, my shepherd, my strongest friend. I do not deserve you, that much I know. I do not deserve you at all. But – I need you, you, Jesus, now. Always. More than ever and more than before and more than in future. I need you. Please come. Please be listening.”

 

Wait. Bleed. Wait. Hope. Wait. Amen.




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I’m feeling pretty blue at the moment – if you’re in the same boat, maybe don’t read this and instead go and listen to something cheerful on your ipod.

The last week has been busy and my head feels full to overflowing. My parents (and the difficulties they bring) are gone now, the concert went well, it’s been a good week on the wards (even got to scrub in to a few surgeries) and I’ve  had some brilliant news about the library project I’m setting up for my favourite hospital….. but I am still feeling so low and empty that none of it registers. In some ways, it’s actually the ‘good weeks’ when positive things happen and I have small personal achievements, that hurt the most – I should be rejoicing, yet still feel numbed. I should be pleased, but am still overcome with a dragging feeling of hopelessness. I should be thankful, but all it does is make me feel more unreachable than ever.

Without intending to be stereotypical, unoriginal and pretentious, Sylvia Plath knew what she was talking about when she described depression being like a bell jar. Sometimes, I can almost see a barrier come down between me and the world, blocking all my negativity in and all the sunshine out. It encircles me completely and seems to have a time-delay from the world outside  – things rush by at a pace I can’t quite comprehend, and there I am, trudging along behind, dazed and confused like a rabbit in the headlights. It’s lonely, in this bubble under the glass. It’s as though there’s still this vast expanse inside me that chokes my out but doesn’t stop the walls from collapsing in.

I’ve cried a lot this past week – my city is waking up to a beautiful springtime and it reminds me that when this all started, it was summertime, fading to fall, then a long winter in which I spent a lot of time sitting in the snow next to a frozen canal, deliberately jacketless, feeling so emotionally numb that hypothermia seemed like a good option. Here we are now, on the cusp of spring, new life emerging everywhere, the days  longer, the nights brighter, and yet I am still melancholy. Where, I wonder, is my new life? Do I have any left in me whatsoever? Sometimes I feel so much closer to being fully gone than fully alive, that eventually, this is surely a battle I’m going to lose. I’m tired of this.

I’ll be back in counselling on Monday and am (as usual) dreading it. I don’t want to go. I feel so numbed and empty at the moment and crowded out, so far out of reach. So cut off. It was nice having a week off, where I didn’t have three days of build-up to going, then three days recovering before it all starts again. And I wonder, over and over, if I am strong enough for this, if this is a battle I want to keep trying to win, or if giving in and letting go would just be easier for all involved. There’s something to be said for knowing your own limits. There’s sometimes something noble in surrender. I’m fed up of trying, yet failing to recover every day. I’m tired of failing. I’m not sure how much more courage I’ve got left to go again and face up to something that I find so painful. I’m not sure I’m prepared enough, or wise enough, or deserving of this elusive healing anyway. Perhaps I’m just someone who has to wait and search and yearn for resolution. Healing does not come to us all, you only have to look at any given group of people to see that and God has His reasons, I’m sure.

I’m sick of scraping the barrel clean and coming up empty. I’m sick of feeling so separate and isolated and so terribly alone, as though the candle in the window I’ve been following home has been blown out. I’m sick of turning my eyes to the skies and searching for God in any of this, and coming up bone-dry. I’m sick of asking again and again for help, and courage, and perseverance and faith, and finding instead that my reserves of all of these just continue to deplete. Hope  is a small word for such a high command. Hope, please don’t run completely dry. Surely I can manage a mustard seed of hope?

I wait for the Lord, oh my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope – from Psalm 130

 

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As a new blogger, I’m still finding out how to work things and keep discovering new tools I didn’t know existed. One of these has been the log of how people are directed to this blog, some of which seem a bit random to be honest!

Anyway, today someone was directed here after a google search for ‘I am a Christian and I have a hard time learning’ which to me suggests one of two things:

a) They’ve read this blog before and as I have written something along those lines, it seemed like a good googling option or…

b) They are a Christian having a hard time learning and needed to find out if they were they only one.

Either way, I’m not sure there are many of us who would say that learning from God is easy – if it was, the Bible would be much shorter, the line to Heaven would be longer, and the whole experience of knowing God  would be a shadow of what it is. At the moment, there’s no doubt that I’m having a hard time both learning and getting by day to day. I’d like to think that anyone in the same boat will read this and know that they’re not alone, just as I feel less alone after a hard day when I see people reading and commenting on here. None of us are alone. xxchar48

xxchar48

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A lesson in being succinct

To summarise my last post, David Hayward over at the fantastic  http://www.nakedpastor.com/ drew this a while back:

Don’t you ever sort of wish you could send God a text? And that you’d get a concrete reply? Thank goodness for promises!

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