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Archive for June, 2011

Last Sunday was the first time I’d been to church in about six weeks, the longest I’ve been away since I started going there two years ago. Having some space has been good for me, but being back also felt right, and as it was the first service that’s not reduced me to tears for about a year, I think both the break, and the return, were well timed.

The pastor was preaching on Psalm 23, which must be the most famous, and beloved, passage of the entire Bible. It’s a psalm we learn as children, a psalm we grow up with, either in church communities, or on film and in books, as it’s the passage so often fished out for both the joyous, and the not-so-joyous occasions. It’s about the shepherd-God, the King who takes a position reserved for the most lowly, the poorest boys who have no option but to chase their flock over mountains and valleys, no option but to sleep in the open and cook over a campfire, no pay, except the wools and skins from the animals so tenderly cared for. It’s about the tireless worker, guiding his charges, binding sore feet, and counting, counting, counting their number to make sure none have gone astray.

One thing he said was that it’s when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death (or, VOTSOD) as I always think of it, never underestimate the power of a good abbreviation etc) – that we feel God most closely guiding us.

I  don’t really agree with this.

In my experience, and if you’ve read previous posts, you’ll know that I don’t believe that the distance between us and God changes at all – it’s out perception that does, our interpretation that always comes up wanting. When I was, quite literally, walking with the shadow of death, I was desperately trying to find God, any God, any where, in the mess I was in thanks to a hefty bout of depression. I was scouring the horizons and praying for hours, and searching, searching, for this shepherd who was supposed to be guiding me, and yet, the skies just seemed completely empty. There was no-one there beside me. There was no footprint next to mine, in the valley. There was no shadow up front to guide my way. My faith turned to one dependant on hope – surely, one day, all those promises would find their way to me and I’d find a bundle of hope with my name on it just when it was needed, surely, this elusive God I’d madcaply tried to follow would turn towards me and gather me, as a lost sheep into his arms. Surely, surely, one day, that day, would come. Depression cuts you off so acutely from the world; it convinces you that you have no part in it, it severs any connections to people and places, it steals hopes and dreams and aspirations and leaves you with nothing except an angry energy that won’t sit still, a nervy desire to get out of your own head, out of your skin, at all costs. I felt cut off. I felt alone and abandoned, in the valley.

It’s now that I am (hopefully, gratefully) coming out of the other side of this year, that I realise that the shepherd was there all along, though I could not see him, through all my panicking. It’s now that I’m on steadier ground, that the promises and gifts of God come into focus, that I see clearly, that He IS faithful, and WAS faithful, and WILL BE faithful. I am, that I am. It’s now that I am out of danger that I understand that Psalm 23 is both antero-, and retro-spective, in my opinion – it may be the truth, but it’s not about the experience of the VOTSOD. It may be what you believe will be the case before the tough times hit you, and it may be what you realise afterwards, but in the eye of the storm, you still feel on your own.

I guess what all this comes back to is that the inconstancies are all on our side; God’s distance never falters, his presence never falters, but our perceptions do – and they are what follow through each day. As the writer of the book of Hebrews put it, ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen’. Its foundations on human weakness and tendency to wander make it fragile and malleable but its focus on God, who is strong and unchanging, make it beautiful. Psalm 23 is a passage that has relevance to me before, during and after those hard times. The image of the shepherd is one of my favourites in the Bible. This is a flock I am happy to be in.

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Timelines

First of all, exam results went up today and I passed well – though when I compare how my mood was in this last set to the other two seasons this year, it’s not that surprising that my results were much better. I even got 93% in the obstetrics/gynae written paper – which is the best mark I’ve had in some time. Now I’m just waiting for my project to be marked, and then I can really breathe a sigh of relief.

I was back in counselling yesterday – I wasn’t that keen to go to be honest – after handing in my project, I quite wanted a break to be honest and just have the day to myself, but L was keen for me to go, and as she was away last week, I agreed. Something I’ve thought about a lot recently is what I want out of this – and as someone who’s not that good at ‘I want’ sentences generally, it’s taken me a while to get up the courage to admit it to myself, and then to L. I won’t go into what we talked about right now – I’m still ‘processing’ it (ahh, therapeutic language, here we come) and as before yesterday I’d not told a single person about what we covered, putting it on a blog is frankly a bit much.

I think one of my problems is that for as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of myself as inherently broken. Sometimes I wonder when I started thinking of myself like that, as someone who would always be falling apart at the seams, at least, behind closed doors, if not in the open. I wonder when I painted myself with the feeling that I’m just wired wrong, that I’m put together wrong, that my foundations are on sand and not stone, that I’m missing something crucial, a horn from my unicorn, a mane from my lion, a shell from my tortoise, something so important that without it, I am incomplete, at risk, and outside the herd.

And I wonder, was it when I was twenty-one, and recovering from my first heartbreak, or eighteen, starting medical school and realising that I couldn’t cope with people drinking in my halls of residence and sitting crying in my room, or at sixteen, visiting my dad in rehab and hospital wards and feeling terrified, whether it was at fourteen, when he started drinking and suddenly the house was veiled in secrets, or twelve, when I was picked on for months at school and no-one did anything to help, or when I started secondary school, doomed to have my name forgotten for the next seven years as everyone just called my by my sister’s name, and thought nothing of it. I wonder whether it was age six when we moved back to the UK from a few years in the US and I was labelled the kid with the accent and the dungarees and the smart-alec attitude or whether it stretches ever earlier than that, from the moment I became the most stereotypical middle child I could probably be, sandwiched between my older sister, the attention seeker, the cleverer, taller, prettier one, and my younger brother, the perpetual baby of the family, going through life with luck continunally in his back pocket.

And sometimes, I wonder if I was just born like this – whether I was marked from birth with a stain of depression and a glass-half-empty attitude, whether I was determined from the cradle to be stuffed full of issues and never really sure, who exactly I was, or am. The faith I follow tells us that we are born broken, in sin, that since the day when eating an apple meant more than Eve getting her five-a-day, mankind is tainted by iniquity and cut off from God by the severing knife of disobedience, so perhaps I am just aware of this more acutely. Perhaps I am just more aware of my own brokenness, my own fracture lines, than I should be. The logical, Biblical answer would be that thanks to Jesus, none of this matters – he is the goat, chased into the desert, bearing our sin. He is the lamb to the slaughter, spilling his blood, so that  ours keeps flowing. He is the glue that sticks us to God, the interpreter opening the lines of communication, the intermediary who stands in the way and shelters us from the world of judgement. One of the things with faith, though, is that head knowledge and heart knowledge are often out of step, and the discrepancy only increases when you’re fighting depression. I’ve lost a lot of ‘heart knowledge’, this year, but it’s coming back, it always, always, comes back.

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Mission: Accomplished?

I handed in my project yesterday – although it’s nowhere near the standard it would have been if this year hadn’t been so difficult, posting it under the college office door, felt quite emotional. I’ve been on this rollercoaster for a year now, if I take the ‘start point’ as my final clinical rotation of third year, and for so much of that period of time, I really didn’t know if I’d make it through the year academically, or, in perfect honesty, at all.

These last few weeks have suddenly felt different, and it is such a huge relief. I feel like myself again and I find myself making plans and getting excited about things that for months, have left me cold. I’m actually sleeping for a full night, which hasn’t happened for a long time. I’m not spending hours every day crying, hours every day wondering if all this effort was worth it, if I was even going to make it through. It’s like that moment in the Wizard of Oz where the scenery suddenly changes from monochrome to colour, from the drab Kansas in the grip of the depression (oh, the irony!), to the joys of Oz (joyful until those monkeys appear, anyway) – as though after months of living in complete darkness, the light has come, the dawn has broken, the sun has come forward. God’s really come through for me, in these last few weeks. I’m also incredibly grateful for that. Many of you readers may not be believers – I don’t know whether you are, but I can say that I owe a big part of my recovery to that focus God gives me on the promise of better things to come. Without God, I am hope-less. With him, I have something to fix my eyes on, something to lean on, someone I hope and pray and yearn to come, and bring me out, bring me home at last.

I’ve posted one of my favourite hymns, that I’ve not listened to for a while – for many months, I just couldn’t bear it, it had no relevence. All was certainly not well, with my soul. Today though, I feel a sense of peace that has been so very elusive. I feel a sense of stopping, safe and still, that has been so resolutely absent. I’ve been to the bottom, I know it, I’ve met it, I’ve returned. I still have a long way to go to find my feet properly – my confidence has been seriously knocked this year, and there is , of course, still the weekly counselling with L to get through – but feeling like I’ve found that nook in the rock halfway up to rest is wonderful. I’ve not always managed things that well this year, and although partly that comes down to the things depression does to your personality and judgement, it was also partly due to me just being stubborn and needing something to rile against. That I’ve come through it, this episode at least, mostly without medication, without rest, and without getting myself to the help I probably needed, amazes me.

I used this video as it also has a bit about the background to the song, which I think is one of the reasons I love it as much as I do.

http://youtu.be/T8_EfDqF7YI

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I found myself thinking about Jeremiah again this week. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you might remember I wrote about Jeremiah a few months ago, here. I love Jeremiah, for his strange and blessed mix of uncertainty and obedience. He’s a good prophet for a young person to follow, I think.

Verse 23:23 says, “Am I only a God nearby” declared the Lord, “And not a God far away?”

As Christians, we’re always talking about distance from God. We’re always talking about drawing near, and falling away, and being lost in the wilderness. We talk about being held in God’s hand, and of turning shoulders away from the light. We speak of approaching the throne of God with confidence, and of running the race set before us with endurance. There’s a lot of distance speak, which is odd, as the topic is purely perceptional. We feel that God is not there by us, and seek explanation; but the distances do not change.

Sometimes, I think of God’s love as being like a layer in the atmosphere encircling the earth; purely and perfectly spherical (or more accurately an oblate spheroid, for the geeks amongst us), so that wherever you are, whoever you are, his closeness to you is the same, unchanging.I don’t really believe in ‘godless areas’ or ‘godless people’; I only believe that some people haven’t quite got God yet, in whatever form, in any form; God has them too, they just don’t know it. I don’t believe that God has no presence in the brothels and the prison camps, the slums and the cities; I believe he’s there, just as much as he is in church on Sundays, if not more. It’s us, in our folly, who suddenly get this obsession with abandonment and being held at arm’s length when times get hard. It’s us, in our disenchantment, who start to believe that the hand that guided them through the hours, has let go, that the signpost in the wilderness has blown away in a storm. It’s us, who speak of ‘godless areas’ when what we mean is ‘places I would not want to be’ and ‘godless people’ when what we mean is ‘people I would not want to meet’. The problems with distance are of our own making.

And we, or certainly, I do not stop there. As I start to believe that God has me out of sight and out of reach, I start to doubt if he is the God I believe him to be. I start to think that the distance I imagine to be between us is dilutional; that when I don’t feel that catch at my heart or that hand on my shoulder, God fades, pales out, and starts to flicker. He becomes a God of the occasional-maybe-perhaps-not-really-possible. He becomes the distant figure watching from the sidelines, helpless. As I feel myself fading, he fades too. I lose sight, of who He is. He turns from a God, to a plastic action figure – a cheapened copy of the real thing, a fake. He becomes scarily two dimensional. These last few months, I’ve certainly felt far away, and forgotten. I’ve certainly felt out-of-depth and out-of-sight. I’ve been overwhelmed and underequipped, I’ve been blinded by the steep incline in front of me and deafened by the voices of depression. I’ve made the mistake of thinking that as my feeling of disconnection grows, God’s power is shrinking. I’ve made the mistake of forgetting that faith is a two-way thing, and that although there seems to be a bad connection on the line from me to God, the vein that holds me from his end, is still strong and still flowing.

I’ve got a week to go now, to get this project done. It’s the final hurdle before I get all of three weeks off before starting fifth year. At the moment, I feel quite overwhelmed with knowing that I’ve (just about) made it through – that although I didn’t believe it, God has dragged me through this. For a lot of this year, making it through the days and weeks has been my biggest challenge – and God has got me through, set me down at the start of June, finally feeling that tiniest inch closer to normal. He’s kept me safe through these months, although for many of them, I felt alone and shut off.

Jeremiah made the mistake of diluting God with his notion of distance – and God turned and told him that although the space between them never alters, when Jeremiah, in all his humanity thinks is has, God’s strength and faithfulness remains the same. If Jer wants to think he’s distanced from the Lord, that’s fine – but thinking that God’s power is also removed, is a no-go. God gives him a non-dilutional faith, a non-dilutional love. This distance is of his own imagination. God is still there.

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