Sunday, 2 February 2020

Red January: 31 Days of Mental Health Help

This is a slightly odd (and very long!) post: it's a compilation of Instagram story shots that I posted over there this past month. I completed RED (Run Every Day) January, and used it as an opportunity to share my mental health journey. 

If you share this, please share using just my first name or A Certain Brightness, and don't tag me please. If it's helpful though, pass it on. Obviously it's nice when you share something vulnerable to have some sort of feedback- so if you've had a read, let me know. Otherwise, share away! 

Finally- depression is horrible and overwhelming. Here are 31 snapshots of light in the darkness, but I no means want to make it sound easy. I wanted to share this stuff to show that it takes an army to fight depression (and sometimes depression still wins, prior to Jesus' return). I also wanted to honour all those people who have loved me, without condition, in ways I could never repay, in ways that speak of a God who is radically and gloriously committed to humanity in all their brokenness. There's a link at the end to donate to Mind; this month I've been humbled realising all the privileges I've had enabled me to survive that others don't have. 


Sunday, 22 September 2019


The last time I reviewed something on my blog was back in 2015; it's quite unusual for me! But having just finished watching Netflix's Unbelievable, I felt compelled to do it again.

Two warnings before I kick off. Firstly, Unbelievable is a story about sexual abuse, and so I will be writing about that in the following post. Secondly, there will be spoilers. This post will hopefully make sense even if you haven't watched it, but if you would like to  without any information in advance, feel free to head over to Netflix now. It is an excellent programme, so if you can, I strongly recommend it!

A few people I spoke to gave up after Episode 1, which tells the bleak story of Marie Adler (impressively performed by Kaitlyn Dever), a young woman who suffers terrible abuse at the hands of a rapist. She reports the story to the police, but after doubt is expressed over her story, withdraws her statement and tells everyone she made it up. The episode is bleak. But of course, it had to be. It is based on specific true events, and true events in a general sense. Rape is terrible. It was so important to have a first episode that did not hold back from portraying the horror of the violation, or the bitter isolation of its victim. As the programme developed it became a remarkable story of resilience and hope, but it can only be this, because for us to have any true hope about the world, we have to look suffering full in the face: cruelty and violence and injustice are real. If we want redemption, it needs to be real. Superficial redemption is no redemption at all. To know what kind of redeemer is required, we need to look right at the depths. And the depths are dark and repellent and ugly. (That said, the horror was not gratuitous in anyway.)

Unbelievable has a woman-led cast, and the performances were excellent. I particularly loved the portrayal of the partnership between the two detectives (played by Toni Collette and Merritt Weaver) who begin working together once they realise that they are dealing with a serial rapists operating across different districts. These women are strong, but different to one another, strong but not competitive, strong but married, strong but able to apologise for their mess ups, strong but emotional, strong but prayerful, strong but limited, strong but weak, strong and funny.

I was fascinated by the portrayal of Karen Duval (Weaver). It is unusual to see a woman of faith presented as an intelligent, strong, In Christ Alone singing bad-ass, at work to do genuine good in the world. Of course she reminded me of an awful lot of the women of faith I know. She considers her pursuit of justice to be a matter of faith; she has "Here I am, send me," stuck to her dashboard, she admits that the injustice she sees in the world is a source of pain and contention with God and she is honest with him about it. (Take note, all ye who doubt tbe idea that godly women cannot be police officers.)

But what was most powerful about the programme was how well it communicated the fact that goodness is only possible through the execution of justice. Marie Adler stops believing that good things can happen when those who should be pursuing justice fail her. Detective Grace Rasmussen (Colette) tells her partner in no uncertain terms how far God is falling short because he lets awful crimes go unpunished, and at the end, when the rapist is sentenced, she recognises it as an answer to prayer.

It is more common to see God publicly criticised for his judgement: can't he just let everyone off? But this story powerfully communicates that evil left unpunished is far, far worse. An evil in itself, in fact.

When the rapist is sentenced for his multiple crimes, he receives more than 300 years in prison. His actual crimes took less than a day, but no one involved in the case considers his punishment disproportionate. The impact of his crimes last far longer than that, of course, and the final episode was particularly moving in its presentation of the long-term impact of sexual abuse. But the story demonstrates that the pursuit of justice is about the worth of the women. The sentence is a wonderful vindication of their humanity: it is not okay that you were treated like property, like animals, carelessly, selfishly, brutally... justice isn't so much about paying back the moments of abuse, horrific as they may be. It's about vindicating the worth of the one violated.

This show helped me better understand the judgement of God. The fact that he judges evil is good news, especially in a world where even those who are meant to pursue justice are flawed, or in some cases evil themselves. Some terrible crimes are committed and in this life, there are those who get away with it. What hope is there for victims of such injustices, without the confidence that one day, a perfectly good judge will set things right?

The programme doesn't make this point, but it did strike me. What about the times when I've treated people as trash? "Putting it right" isn't so much a restoration of one moment, it's about the worth of the ones I've violated. Their value can't be restored in a moment for moment exchange. And what about the times I've treated as trash One who has infinite value? What length of sentence would be fitting for that?

In the light of this, an eternal Redeemer, able to plumb the murkiest depths, seems like staggeringly good news.

So, there are my thoughts on Unbelievable. I thought it was sensitive, hopeful, realistic, beautifully acted, thoughtful, nuanced and the best thing I've seen on TV for a while. And definitely worth talking about!

I would love to hear your thoughts too.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

On Being Ill

On the 15th July I was admitted to hospital because I was experiencing severe, vomit inducing head/shoulder/backaches whenever I stood up. I spent a couple of nights there, having various scans, injections and blood tests to try and diagnose the problem. In the end I was discharged with the diagnosis of "intracranial low pressure headaches", and it’s taken me about a month to recover (to the point of doing some writing, at least!). 

This afternoon I sat down to write about some of the things that struck me over the last month; it’s been intense and probably what I’ve written is a total mess. But I wanted to get it out there in a raw form, before I forget it all. It’s not the greatest thing I’ve ever written (but give me a break, I’ve had a brain leak!), and I wish I could communicate the depths of some of these thoughts. But it is what it is, as they say. I'm on the slow road to recovery, for those interested in the personal details. 

On Being Ill

I realised I was fragile in ways I hadn’t properly thought about:
that being outside,
or feeling the beating sun,
or making a meal, or a cup of tea,
or standing up, sitting up
might be something I’d taken for granted.
I realised my body is more fearfully made than I gave it credit for.
I did not know that my brain needed to be kept afloat-
that I could spontaneously,
-in a moment-
bend and break
if it wasn’t.

I lay in the GP surgery and wondered
at how comprehensively I could be brought low.
And on the hospital trolley I wondered
at all my body could do
(under normal circumstances.)
And even then!
Horizontal, I ate a ploughman’s sandwich.

I lay in the MRI and wondered what it might show,
I thought of all those patients before me-
whose bodies and brains buckled,
who bore pain that would never go away.
I wondered: is this my last year, month, day?

I realised I was fragile in ways I hadn’t thought about.
I lay on the trolley,
lights spinning above my head,
and wondered, “is this it, for the rest of my life?”
I made jokes: about my dancing and my drinking,
about how cleaning the kitchen floor did my head in.
But I wondered.

And when everyone went home,
and all that was left was the ward,
and the nurses and the pills
and the beeps and the whirrs and the cries and the chaos
and the patients who had to be told every five minutes to stay in bed and go to sleep,
what mattered was not so much how long I’d be here,
but where I’d be,

One thing I ask,
one thing I seek;
to dwell in the house of the Lord all my days,
to gaze upon your beauty,
to worship at your feet,
One thing I seek.

There was so much scope for fear,
but there was quiet amid the noise:
whom shall I fear?
whom shall I fear?
I could lie on my sick bed and take refuge in a God who’d been brought low.

I lay in hospital, and my life seemed so fragile. So small.
And it could have seemed so insignificant.
But I lay, drip murmuring above me, and thought:
God sees. God is with me in the ward.
The One on the throne looks like a Lamb, slain.
One led to the slaughter.
One who was laid in a tomb.

I realised I was fragile in ways I hadn’t thought about.

I didn’t expect the recovery to involve holding
every message,
every silence
up to the light
and asking,
don’t they care that I lived?
do they care that I lived?
do they care enough that I lived?

One thing I seek.

I didn’t expect the recovery to involve holding  
my own selfishness
up to the light:
and asking,
“why has the illness of others cost you so little?”

Maybe I expected to feel, “why me?”
The clamour of self-pity, outrage, disappointment. And oh, I did.
They were as noisy as the ward.
But I didn’t expect to feel, “why not me?”
But I have.

More often than not I’ve wept
for all the ways I’ve been given
health and ease
in a brutal, broken world
that promises no one either.

Being ill, I realised I am broken, and bitter,
and wavering.

One thing I ask--
(am I loved enough?)
One thing I ask--
(have I lived enough?)
One thing I ask--
(haven’t I suffered enough?)
to gaze upon your beauty,
to worship at your feet,
One thing I seek.

Massive shout out to this song by Shane and Shane that got me through the last month. I think I must have listened to it hundreds of times.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Hope Amid Ashes

The past has long arms.

This is what I have been discovering as I plan for the future: the past, with all its regrets and disappointments, is exceptionally good at reaching through to the present, to the future- and threatening to tear up hope.

This week, as I was thinking about what's next, feeling the lurking presence of the arms of the past, I remembered these verses from Philippians 3: "One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize..." I thought- yep, that's what I need, to not let what's happened in the past cloud out my hope for the future. But how? Especially when you feel stuck under the shadow of its pain?

I've been enormously encouraged reading Lamentations this month. It's a collection of five poems written in the midst of the devastation of exile. The poet wrestles with the anguish of seeing Jerusalem destroyed: the temple has been defiled, all that was precious within it has been taken away. People are starving or slaughtered. The streets are bloodied and desolate. A place that was meant to be a symbol of eternal glory is now scattered and ruined: there is no hope for restoration before the new Creation.

There is something stirring about reading through this book. I love how the Bible allows for such anguish. Amid such hopelessness and despair, I am so moved by the poet's longing and his unwavering appeals to God: "Look, O Lord and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow..." (1:12), "Look, O LORD and see! With whom have you dealt thus?" (2:20), "my eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the LORD from heaven looks down and sees..." (3:49, 50), "Restore us... O LORD, that we may be restored!". In the midst of disappointment he cannot process, regret for what he cannot undo, the poet keeps crying out to God. He's aware he doesn't deserve God's mercy, but he keeps asking for it anyway.

The poet's account is harrowing: women are raped, princes are executed, children are forced to stagger beneath the burden of work and are at risk from those who love them most (5:11-13). The damage is done, and devastating.

It is remarkable then that these famous verses come in the middle of this anthology of anguish:

"But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: because of the steadfast love of the Lord, we are not consumed, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (3:22-23) 

Every now and then I post: "new morning, new mercies" on Instagram with a picture of a sunset, or a tree or some other tranquil scene. But the actual backdrop to these verses is a city in ashes. Somehow, right in the middle of the mess, the writer declares: I have hope. There's nothing in his current circumstances to offer him such hope. There is every reason for the arms of the past reach forward and tear hope to pieces entirely: the past cries "loss!", "emptiness!", "ruin!". But he hopes anyway.

But how!? How can he possibly still have hope?

Chapter 3 goes on: "The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him".

Knowing God is his reason for hope. Similarly, in Philippians, Paul's basis for forgetting the past and battling on is given a few verses earlier: knowing Jesus is better than everything else. He's happy to put the achievements of the past in the bin and to face a future ridden with suffering if it means by doing so he might know Jesus. Jesus is my portion, he says, and that's enough!

In Lamentations, the poet is surrounded by absolute devastation: the city is a princess become a slave, a bitterly weeping widow (1:1,2). The ruin of the city is as vast as the sea: and the prospect of healing seems utterly impossible (2:13). The past has reached forward and ripped up every reason to hope in the future. And yet the poet still has hope. Why? Because the LORD is his portion. 

So as I look to the future I'm asking God to help me forget what is behind... all those disappointments and regrets and failures that reach forward and try to rip up hope. I'm asking that he'll keep hope alive. Hope for what?

That the LORD will be my portion.

There are some ways the brokenness of this world won't be fixed before the new creation. One day, the poet of Lamentations will see a heavenly Jerusalem that blows away his expectations for redemption and glory. Its radiance will be "like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal". But in his lifetime, Jerusalem remained in ashes. Similarly, come the New Creation, there will be redemption... glorious, unfathomable, hand-on-my-mouth, shut-the-front-door, glory-to-Jesus redemption. He will have done more than I could ask or even imagine. But in this lifetime, I might not see it.

But I still won't let the past tear up my hope for the future.

Whatever the future may hold, it holds Jesus. And sin and the devil and death couldn't tear him up. Whatever the future may holds,  the Lord will be my portion.

What grace!

And therefore I have hope.

"You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and you have come to Jesus..."
Hebrews 12:22-24 

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

3 Almost Helpful Attitudes to Singleness

One Saturday a couple of years ago I found myself on the dance floor at a wedding with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” blaring out of the speakers. My initial response to it was a surge of sass, as is the norm when Queen B drops the beat, but as I glanced around the sense of empowerment quickly fizzled away and my enthusiasm waned: the whole circle I was with consisted of couples- young, young couples, who all - sheepishly, awkwardly- ended up looking my way. Everyone smiled and clapped and we all did 'the dance', but instead of feeling liberated, I felt ashamed.

For me, shame is a large component of my battle with singleness, especially as I get older. When I was in my mid-twenties I wore my singleness with pride. If you dug a little you would have found anxiety and the lurking suspicion that maybe my relationship status would be permanent, but nonetheless I would have been front, centre and singing on the dance floor.

All this to say that my experience of singleness has changed as the years have gone by. Over the past few months, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that marriage is a very real uncertainty. I realised that I was finding this extraordinarily hard to accept: looking at a future without marriage in it seemed like something I couldn’t cope with, and having spoken openly about it, I know I am not the only one. But that seemed absurd to me, given what the Bible says about who Christians are, what they're made for, who they are known by! I am more than a conqueror, I am part of a royal priesthood, I am an heir... and yet I'm not worthy if I'm not married? Please. Jesus did not come so that I could hitch my entire identity, hope for the future and joy on some mortal man!

Given this, why have I, at times, felt so distressed by the prospect of singleness? I have been trying to unpick what the attitudes are that have made facing the future single feel so shameful and implausible. There's must be something askew somewhere, so what is it?

Some attitudes were easier to unpick than others. For example, those attitudes that helpfully suggested I “try going to the gym,” or casually quipped, “I bet you pray for a husband every day”, were cast aside lightly (or thrown in to the bin with great force). But there were some other attitudes that I think needed to be dealt with with a little more nuance, especially as they are often offered up as comforts to suffering singles. Although it is by no means exhaustive, I hope this post is helpful to married and single folk alike... and I am ready for the push back! And... what better time to share these thoughts then on Valentine’s Day Eve? Jokes! But also- here we are!

 “If it makes you feel better, marriage is hard too…”

What I like about this is that it is true: marriage is hard. Having seen many, many, many friends get married, I can testify with both hands (is that a thing?), that marriage is difficult with a capital D! It exposes sin and selfishness, it’s humiliating, it’s exhausting, it's painful and it’s a fricking miracle! Seriously married people: go book yourself in for some celebratory Valentine's wine. Praise God for his grace when he makes it work! I like the helpful challenge this attitude presents to the idolatry of assuming marriage will be a "happily ever after". 

What I like less about this attitude is that, because I’m not a psychopath, the suffering of my married friends does not bring me comfort. I want to take the suffering of my married friends seriously, and I don’t think it would be compassionate or kind or sensible or helpful to say, “well, you should try being single!” Marriage is hard. Singleness is hard. Marriage has the potential to be the solution to some of the problems that there are with singleness. Singleness has the potential to be the solution to some of the problems that there are with marriage. Given this, dismissing one with the other does not help! 

 “This is God’s best for you.”

What I like about this statement is that it acknowledges the fundamental truth behind every person’s singleness: God is Sovereign. If you are single, the reason you are so is because God is working his purpose out, and for now, part of his purpose is this. This means you can stop worrying about whether you are single because of your appearance, your weight, your personality, your history, your circumstances, your mistakes, your fussiness- because even if those factors are… factors, over all those things, God is Sovereign. All the days ordained for you were written in God’s book before one of them came to be. I also like it because it acknowledges that God is good, it aims to communicate God's care for me, and it begins to testify to the truth that God is at work to bring about ultimate good in all things.

What I don’t like about it is that it’s not a Biblical phrase, and as such is slightly clumsy theology. 

I have a basic test for such soundbites that goes: “is it true for every Christian in every place?” For example, I would find it an inexpressibly inadequate thing to say to a Christian in a work camp in North Korea, and an outright offensive thing to say a Christian whose child just died of cancer. I am not denying God's Sovereignty or his goodness. Yes, the Lord reigns. Yes, all suffering has a purpose. Yes, God will redeem. But redemption comes with the acknowledgement that things are broken. Death camps are bad. Cancer is bad. Sin is bad. Loneliness is bad.

God’s best for us was Eden, and God’s best for us will be the new creation. But in the meantime, we suffer, because the world is not as it should be. And part of the wretchedness of the world’s brokenness is that the curse is uneven. Some people have it worse than others: suffering isn’t handed out in even batches- it's irrational and disproportionate and terrible. Evidently I am not saying here that I think singleness is the worst of all sufferings- far from it! I am just making the general point that this "God's best" attitude can be short-hand in a way that I have not found particularly helpful…

The Lord redeems: it is his glory that this is his work. I’ve been reading Ruth recently, which is a powerful story of redemption. Naomi loses her husband and sons, and yet God brings her from a place of loss to a place where she becomes the grandmother of King David. It is a powerful, beautiful and gracious redemption. But Ruth’s baby didn’t “replace” the lost sons: that's not how redemption works. There was redemption, but there was also brokenness, and still grief. In this world, Naomi still had to carry the brokenness of her son’s premature deaths. One day that brokenness would be healed forever, but not in Ruth 4. 

Single people suffer in singleness because the world is broken (and because the church doesn’t always function in the way it should- more on this later!) and "God's best" can undermine that. 

The glorious news is that God is working powerfully in all things for good, shaping his children in to the likeness of Jesus. And as with Jesus, suffering now means glory later. So if the attitude behind “this is God’s best for you” is actually, “God is achieving for you glory that will far outweigh all the brokenness you suffer now, because he is an incredible redeemer who is delighted by how you’re honouring him by persevering in suffering”, then it’s a glorious attitude. But maybe we need to qualify!

 “Maybe God is teaching contentment in Jesus…”

What I like about this statement is that it is acknowledging the reality that God is at work in our character at all times and that he loves for us to find refuge in Him. It points to the glory and sufficiency of Jesus and to the fact that God cares about both our holiness and our happiness.

What I don’t like about it…

Firstly, it is dangerously close to, Peggy (for example, name inspired by photo from Peggy's Cove) saying, “I found someone when I learned to be content.” 

As my friend once courageously pointed out at a hen do where she'd heard a few too many 'aw you deserve it' statements: “marriage is not a reward for good behaviour.” The gospel reminds us that none of our blessings are a reward for our goodness. Marriage is a gift! A glorious, generous gift- so it is unhealthy to make it sound like it is something that is earned by contentment, or maybe some other attitude of godliness. This lands you on a trail of misery where you think you will be married once you are more (or less) of XY and Z. But, as with all goodnessess from the Lord, marriage is something that comes from grace- an exceptional gift in a broken world- that demonstrates the power of the cross, not something that comes once you’ve chalked up enough godliness points. 

So when we clap engagement announcements in church (for example) it is a celebration of God’s generosity rather than an applauding of someone’s achievements. And boy is God generous!

(As a brief aside/ sass at Peggy...  it is wonderful if Peggy learned contentment aged 25. But there are probably many single people who had long periods of contentment when they were 25 too- but when 26, 27, 30, 40 tick over, they had to learn to battle with it again: another round of shame, of changing friendships, of joy in their friends joy. It is different being single when all your closest friends are married to being single when all your closest friends are also single! So though Peggy might feel that the narrative was that her marriage came from her contentment… perhaps her discontentment was satisfied by marriage.)

But more importantly, finding singleness painful is not the same as being discontent. It may be that the very fact of someone's singleness is a sign of their contentment in Jesus. It may be painful, but it is accompanied by perseverance. They could drop the whole shebang and go find any old partner (though the Holy Spirit would be on their case), but they haven’t. They've stuck it out trusting God and said- I’m suffering, but Jesus is worth it.  

One more time: finding singleness painful is not the same as being discontent. It's a sign of being human. Humans were made for community. That was God’s plan. The reason singleness can feel hard to bear is not because of an insecure relationship with God, but because it's hard to conceive of what community will look like apart from marriage. In my twenties it was clearer, because we all hung out together, but what about when all of my close friends are paired off in to new units?* Jesus and I both know that I need other humans. That's what the church is for! 

[I should say here that I am incredibly thankful to friends I know who have made me feel part of their families and lives, because that is what has made singleness seem like a more plausible option.] 

To take it further, I recently realised, with some alarm, that I would be theoretically willing to jet off to Siberia... or Antarctica... or the moon with a man I loved, even if I knew only him, because it seemed that marriage would offer me a more stable covenant community than life in the place I've lived for the past eight years has! Realising that willingness (ahem... desperation?) in myself helped me see there is something skewed about the way church community is functioning (and I don't mean my specific church, just our culture in general!), and the reason singleness feels sad is not necessarily because single people are being ungodly, but because they're being human. Humans are made for human family, made to live life alongside other people, made for interdependence. 

So yes, God may be teaching a single person contentment. But that doesn't mean their singleness won't hurt. And yes, there are blessings with singleness. Very, very many.  (Including being able to still own the dance floor with Queen B when the occasion arises!). But there is also pain. 
As Christians, single, married, divorced, bereaved, we can be perplexed, persecuted, hard-pressed, struck down and always carrying around in us the death of Jesus, and still be content. Being content in Jesus means looking the suffering full in the face and then looking up and saying, “Jesus, I see the cost, but you’re worth it. You're with me, and you're worth it.”

So instead of the attitude, “maybe God is teaching you contentment,” it might be better if... (and I don't think there's an easy fix here, so please excuse the enormous leap...) the church operated more like a family, so that singleness doesn't feel like being shut out, and marriage doesn't feel like being shut in. What we want is for marriages to overflow with love that welcomes in the widows, orphans and singles, and for singles to serve their married friends with the love that trusts Jesus' promise it is better to give than to receive. I have no idea how to change this, but I'd like it to change!

Waiting for Glory! 

Jesus came to be a hope to those who had no earthly reason to hope. He came to build a loving community out of sinners and to make himself known by their love for one another. He came to enable us to suffer and rejoice, until all things are made new in the new creation and ultimate community! Yes! And it's my prayer that whatever our relationship status, we'll help make being human better for one another, and in doing so, make the glory of Jesus known. 

Those thoughts will do for now. I hate posting about singleness, but people love to read about it. So, here is my almost-Valentine's gift to you. Yours to me could be some kind of acknowledgement you've read? There's something unnerving about silent readers, especially on this issue. 

Love to you all. xx 

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Painful Faith in Dark Nights

"Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, "where have they laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus wept. So the Jews said, "see how he loved him!" But some of them said, "could not he who opened blind eyes also have kept this man from dying?" John 11: 32-37

A prayer of faith 

When she was at the tomb
and her brother had died
Mary came to you broken, weeping.
She cried,
if you had been here he would not have died.
If only you had been here.
She wept because she knew you:
You could have made things different. Deathless. Divine.
She wept knowing you:
You had set so many free,
Your power had settled exploding seas:
You were love and power and power and love
And the sun rising in the darkest of nights.

But this night the sun had not risen.

It was her faith in you that broke her heart.
If you had been there... it would not be so.
It was faith, not doubt, that dealt the tragic blow.
She knew and she'd seen and she trusted:
You could put a stop to pain,
And send it howling into the sea.
You could make whole the broken
Undo decay, send them leaping away.
You could liberate the ashamed
And send them home.
You could
You could
You did.

But this time the sun had not risen.
This time,
You didn't.
You hadn't. 
If only you had been there.
But you had stayed away. 
And now the splinters of her self looked in to the bleakest of tombs,
Staring into the stony face of her worst case scenario.
Worst case that would not have been,
If you had been there.
If you had been there she would not now feel the sting of shame or
Feel the burning gaze of those who said:
he blessed others but he didn't bless you. Maybe he couldn't. 
But her heart shattered because she knew,
she knew from those days where your words
Took root and grew
cut through twisted weeds that choked belief, 
that had hissed, he couldn't.
Yet in the darkness of the soil bloomed truth:
You could.
You could.
Of course you could.

But this time, you hadn't. 
If only you had been there.
If only.

And I know that you could put a stop to my heartache too.
You could reach out and heal those soul sores
Raw with wondering when you'll turn up,
Stinging with the disappointment, more, of wondering
If you do turn up,
Won't it be too late?
Isn't it already too late? 

My faith breaks my heart
Because I know the tenderness of those scarred hands
That can bind up the wounded -
That could bind up me.
You could.
You could.
But Lord, I'm undone.
And you say death has lost its sting
But life sure hasn't.
But it could.
Surely, Son of David, it could. 
My faith breaks my heart 
Because I know you are the Dawn to defeat the blackest of nights,
But I'm still in the abyss.  

Lion of Judah,
You could tear up the dark.
Lamb of God you could tend to my heart.
Gracious Jesus,
In whom the nations hope-
how my soul aches, quakes, trembles, breaks
Wishing you would,
Knowing, you could, 

Liberator of captives,
That you would break the chains of shame.
That you would settle the explosions,
silence those voices that cry: 
he blessed others but he didn't bless you. May be he couldn't, they say.
But you could.
You could.
Of course you could. 

Lord Jesus, I know-
I know because your word bloomed in my heart too-
Glory as of the only begotten of the Father,
full of grace and truth-
You bloomed in my heart-
Love and power and power and love
And you could.
You could.
You could. 

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Why I'm Still a Christian (Part 1)

My last post was the story of how, aged 15, I became a Christian.

When I was a teenager, I was aware of a lurking assumption that I'd fizzle out of this phase soon enough, just like I fizzled out of recording every single song in the UK Top 40 every.single.week. But while I eventually stopped being a Top 40 addict (I blame the break up of the Spice Girls), I haven't stopped being a Christian. And why not? *

There are two main thoughts that have tempted me to throw in the towel. One is, "it's not true" and the second is, "it's too hard."

I will discuss the elements of faith that have sometimes felt too hard another time: depression, singleness, the church, unanswered prayer. But if I had not found peace over the first question (is it true?), I never would have stuck around to figure out the second (is it worth it?).

The first time it even crossed my mind that Christianity might not be true came about a year after I became a Christian.  I had enjoyed a year of joy and freedom, where every hymn I sung sounded fresh and glorious; the whole world looked hopeful in a way I had not imagined possible.Then I hit a bump. I went on a five week trip to Kenya with a team of other teenagers, where we ran kids' camps in partnership with local churches. One of the churches we partnered with was part of a tiny Christian population on a beautiful, largely Islamic island.  While we were there we stayed in a stone guest house in the Old Town. Bougainvillea hung on the lattice above us as we slept on the paved floors in sleeping bags, or on them, because even in the night the heat was clammy. Each morning we were woken up by the call to prayer. Long before we managed to get our weary eyes open to assess our mosquito bites, the song resonated across the island and our Muslim neighbours made their way down cobbled streets to one of the many local mosques.

During my first year of faith the thought that someone might be able to believe something with the same conviction as I believed in the trustworthiness of Jesus had not crossed my mind. But during those early mornings, I began to see that sincerity wasn't enough. I was sincere; these Muslims were sincere. We believed contradictory things; we couldn't both be right just because we were both sincere. It would be disrespectful to the Muslims who were worshipping Allah to diminish their beliefs and say, "well, really we're praising the same God." The smallest knowledge of both religions demonstrates that this is not the case (for example, Muslims do not believe Jesus died, Muslims do not believe Jesus is God... two points central to Christian faith). Somehow the question of the truth of my belief began to matter.

The same year I began studying philosophy at A Level, which threw up all sorts of intellectual challenges to the Bible. At the same time, my unbelieving friends upped the tempo. They'd let me have my faith for a while, but when my enthusiasm had outlasted the year, they began to ask probing questions. I am so grateful that they made me figure out what I believed and why; they were not willing to settle for any bluffing on my part. Just because it made me feel better didn't make it true.

As a brief aside I should say that just because it made me feel better didn't make it untrue. Just because thirsty people find that water quenches their thirst it doesn't mean that water can't be trusted. Yes, Christianity dealt with my guilt. But if I really was guilty, then its dealing with it wasn't evidence it wasn't trustworthy, but that it was. If I was made to find joy in depending on my Creator, it shouldn't come as a surprise that when I depend on him, I find joy.

But I could see how easy it could be to believe something only because it made you feel better, with a complete disregard for reality. Yes, believing Jesus died for me had made my life better, but it might have made me feel better to believe that Keanu Reeves, over in Hollywood, was desperately in love with me, even if none of the boys in sixth form were. If it wasn't actually true (I am beginning to concede that it probably wasn't) then my believing it would just be delusional.

And so I wanted confidence beyond, "it makes me feel better." It wasn't enough for me to have people say, "I wish I had your faith" when what they really meant was, "I wish I was crazy enough to disengage from reality as much as you can." It became clear that I needed to explore whether or not Christianity could make a claim to truth, quite apart from my own experience. I couldn't shake my experience, but I felt challenged: was what I believed valid beyond my wanting it to be true?

So I read a lot, particularly about the resurrection of Jesus. I read "Who moved the stone?" and "The Case for Christ", both books written by men who had become believers through the process of trying to disprove the existence and resurrection of Jesus. I listened to a number of talks by Michael Ramsden on truth, suffering, and the historical record regarding Jesus. I compared the historicity of Christianity with that of other religions, looked at tables comparing ancient manuscripts, and thought frequently about how the evidence surrounding the resurrection might be explained, apart from the resurrection. Like many others before me I couldn't find an explanation more compelling than the obvious one: that Jesus was alive! (Of course this was also corroborated by my own experience of the living Jesus). I also asked questions, a lot. At youth group, time and again I would say, "this is probably a stupid question but...." How I must have tried my poor leaders! I'm still glad I asked.

By the time I was 18 I had decided I was going to study Theology at a secular university (shout out to Nottingham!). Several people warned me that studying this course would be the death and burial of my faith - but my conviction was growing: there was no point in believing in something that wasn't true. I decided that if the course threw up legitimate objections to faith, then in the end I would be doing myself a favour. Life without the Jesus of the Bible would be most brutal if the Jesus of the Bible really existed. If he didn't, and academic study proved it, then I could get on with living life my way. Reality might hurt, but it still mattered. In the end, all of us want sanity more than happiness.

At university, Theology was a big (though not the biggest) challenge. Some doubts were knocked on the head forever: did Jesus really exist? (Of course he did!), was the New Testament good history? (Luke was remarkable!), was there anything to the God Delusion (ranting, but not much more!), was Islam comparable in terms of the scrutiny its texts had been through? (not even close!), was it possible to be an intellectual and a Christian? (yes, and humble, gracious and kind too - shout out to Dr Chad Van Dixhoorn whose faith, faithfulness and glorious selection of bow-ties helped many of us through second year!).

Looking back I could have been more rigorous in my approach to some of the questions I was presented with during the course. It was difficult to pursue every one to its end, what with living university life and everything. Sometimes I took the short cut of putting my trust in other Christians, well known intellectuals, who had engaged with the cutting edge debates and come away with robust, inspiring, evangelistic love for Jesus. I had three evangelical lecturers who were honest about their own doubts, but who were unwavering in their confidence in Jesus. Sometimes I let them do the hard work for me.

I also had some excellent Christian theologian friends, and we'd sit in the cafe in the Trent building, sipping hot chocolate and helping one another figure things out, or extensively discussing Chad's bowties. At some point during this time I read a fantastic little pamphlet by John Stott who argued that our confidence in the Bible is rooted in our confidence in Jesus. Did we believe that He was the Word made flesh as he claimed to be? If we did, trusting the Bible was ultimately about trusting Him: given He had conquered death, could he be trusted when he saw the Old Testament as authoritative, the New as his commission? The question was more about whether I could trust this person, than whether I could trust the book. In my life outside of theology lectures, I was experiencing the faithfulness of Jesus and getting to know him better, so the call to trust Him was reassuring and made sense to me.

One of my lecturers was an atheist who taught us the "Life and Teachings of Jesus" module. He taught us that Jesus didn't really believe he was the Son of God, that he probably didn't do any miracles, that none of the grand claims of John's gospel could possibly be true. But when he came to the session on the resurrection, he admitted that he could not find an adequate explanation for the birth of the early church, the emptiness of Jesus' tomb, the witness of the women- that wasn't the resurrection of Jesus. He said he thought it was some kind of mass hallucination, but admitted the flaws of his own position. "It's a real problem," he said. I wondered whether, if he'd allowed himself to go in the direction of the evidence, his other views on Jesus might have shifted. Christianity makes the resurrection its own cornerstone, after all. Paul wrote to the early church in no uncertain terms: "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, and so is your faith."

Now I should make clear that these questions concerning the truth of Christianity did not happen in a vacuum. As I asked these questions I was also continuing to read my Bible, continuing to pray for my friends, doing my best to obey what I found Jesus asking me to do, and finding great freedom and joy as I did. I was doing my best to tell others about him and finding that my friends were also compelled by his person. I was going to church and singing hymns written hundreds of years before my lifetime that spoke of a Jesus whose faithfulness resonated with my own experience. As I read more of the Old Testament and saw more of the intricacy of the way the Bible held together, Jesus became too good not to be true, good beyond what one writer could make up- let alone what countless writers from across the centuries could bear witness to! As I got to know Jesus, I found it increasingly hard to believe he was a fantasy. He just did not behave in a way the God of my imagination might behave- like a bigger version of me. He was consistently surprising. He said things I didn't like. He disagreed with me! And like very few people had been able to do before, he managed to change my mind. He commanded me to! And he proved himself to be consistently (sometimes irritatingly) right.

 All  this to say that all of these factors contributed to my perseverance too. I was not asking, "is it true?" from a neutral position. But is anyone, really?

You might read this with the thought, "you had an incentive to believe what you did- it made you happy." And I would agree that believing in the love of Jesus has done me good beyond expression (although my experience of happiness has been complex- as you'll see in the next post!). But I would argue that most people's faith positions are held by an incentive. My lecturer had a reason to want to discount the resurrection- if he did, Jesus could stay as a misunderstood teacher who had no claim on his, or anyone else's life. In fact the Bible says we all have an incentive to want to disbelieve God: if we can dismiss him, then we can go on living lives our way. But if Jesus really did conquer death, he cannot be ignored.

Once I was chatting with some fellow students about the existence of God. They said, "you want me to believe in God when he just swept thousands of people in to the ocean with a tsunami?" The legitimate question of suffering aside, they were blaming the suffering in the world on a God they didn't believe existed! That's quite a tough position to hold! But it was convenient. And we are all very capable of believing what is convenient over believing what is true. What strikes me about Jesus is that he doesn't say, "come follow me, it's convenient." He says, "come follow me to the cross." And many do, all the way to death.

None of this is to say that I have found 'proof' for my faith. But whether or not it is true matters to me, whether its something rooted in history rather than wistful longing (although my wistful longing must be for something!), whether or not it really makes sense of the world as it is, rather than as I would like it to be. Could I have read more? Yes. Do I have unanswered questions? Yes. Do I think I'm a Christian because I was clever enough to figure it out? Absolutely not! I have scratched the surface of theological study. I know countless people who are significantly cleverer than me, many of whom were mentioned in this post, who don't believe. And I didn't even consider the evidence for Christianity until I'd already started following Jesus. But did seeking answers to the question, "is it true?" help me to stay a Christian? Yes, I think it did.

And I hope they may help you too:
(If you have better suggestions, that's what the comments are for!)

- Read the New Testament: does it sound made up to you? 
- Do Uncover with a Christian friend: what impression do you get of Jesus? 
- Why trust the Bible? Amy Orr- Ewing
- The Case for Christ, Lee Stroebel 
- Who Moved the Stone, Frank Morrison 
- More Than a Carpenter, Josh Macdowell 
- The Reason for God, Tim Keller 
- Making Sense of God, Tim Keller 
- Tim Keller "Overcoming Objections" Podcasts
- Glen Scrivener: Debates from Sam Harris (prominent atheist) and Jordan Peterson 

*Of course, the answer to both the how I became and why I still am a Christian is the same: because God is alive, gracious, and committed to me. I think this will become far more evident in next time's post! 
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