Discipleship and Darkness

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

On 18 June 2018 my wife Anne died of cancer. This blog is not about her life and her courage. I know I could never begin to do justice to her extraordinary faith and witness, especially in those final days. This is not even about how I felt at the time. Rather, it concerns what happened to me six months later. It’s offered here in the hope the story might help someone else, especially at this time of Covid 19 and lockdown. I’m writing it because the church – in common with wider society – still finds it hard to talk about depression. And I’m writing it because times of deep darkness – what John of the Cross called ‘dark nights of the soul’ – are part of Christian discipleship for many.

I knew I was in difficulties at the beginning of 2019. Christmas had been really tough, new year worse. I was invariably tired and flat. I was well supported and couldn’t understand why I was struggling so badly. Darkness is definitely the best image I can find to describe how I was feeling. Surely, as the days passed I would shake this off. But I didn’t.

And then one morning I found I simply couldn’t get up. I really couldn’t move; it was as if I was glued to the bed. I’ve experienced low mood at different times in my life, not least when Anne was going through her first cancer in 2012. But this was different. I was just stuck. Thinking back to that day is still very difficult.

Eventually, somehow, I rolled out of bed, and crawled across the floor. By about 11.30 a.m. I found that I could function – just. So began a daily pattern: the mornings were awful, the afternoons slightly better, the evenings tolerable. Then the daily cycle began again. Still, I led meetings, led our staff team, preached and pastored the church.

To my amazement and embarrassment I found spoken prayer almost impossible. I simply couldn’t find the words. With other people I just about managed, but on my own I couldn’t. I felt like a hypocrite.

A few things helped me. One was the so-called Jesus Prayer, rooted in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. This had been part of my prayer life for many years, ever since I discovered it in the early days of my teaching at Spurgeon’s College. I found it brought me back to the simplicity of the gospel, anchoring me as a disciple of Jesus, one whose specific calling meant that words – often quite complicated words – were his stock in trade. But now I was praying the Jesus Prayer for a very different reason: it was all I could manage. The phrases I knew so well were a lifeline. But sometimes even this was too much. All I could say was, ‘Lord, help.’ Other times it was just a sigh. I thought I wasn’t really praying. Perhaps the truth is that I was praying like never before.

I knew I needed help but I’m stubborn! The breakthrough came when I went to the doctors for something quite minor. In the surgery waiting room there was a magazine containing an article with extensive quotes from the actress, Emma Thompson, about her own battle with depression. I have the article in front of me now as I type. She spoke of the ‘mild depression’ she periodically experiences, depression that became overwhelming following the breakup of her marriage to Kenneth Branagh. Everyone’s experience is unique, but to my astonishment she basically described how I was feeling. The struggle to get up, the tears, the forced cheerfulness, the reluctance to seek help: it was all there. The description ‘mild depression’ is important. There are many who suffer far worse. But she had needed help, and so did I. I decided not to bother the doctor with the minor ailment. Instead I would talk about the real problem.

By God’s extraordinary grace, for me, slowly the darkness began to lift. Here’s a few of the things that helped.

Realising I was not alone

We know this from the Bible. Psalm 88 is an example of a lament from someone exhibiting the symptoms of clinical depression. A quick glance through Christian history also shows us we’re not alone. C.H. Spurgeon, the nineteenth-century Baptist preacher, is just one who fought this battle with depression. And in this time of lockdown many are facing struggles with mental health, whilst others have had to deal with this for many years. One of the things about depression is that it often isolates. We feel everyone else is coping, that we are the only ones who are not. Yet when we turn again to Psalm 88 we see how utterly cut off the Psalmist felt. But we are not alone. This realisation in itself was helpful.

Be open

Be open with God first of all. Once again, Psalm 88 gives us this encouragement. Often I realise I pray ‘nice’ middle-class English prayers, very polite and with lots of finely phrased sentences. God is not impressed! He knows what’s in my heart before I speak it out, so why not be open with him? Be open with others too. When I did share what was happening – doing so with a degree of fear and trembling – I found love, understanding, and people who would journey with me. Church was great. I hope you have people around you who can help you too.

Seek help

For me this meant being honest with our staff team, elders, in appropriate ways, the wider church. It also meant bereavement counselling, medication and, for a time, a revised pattern of working. If you’re a Baptist Minister you can access a Ministerial Counselling service and receive subsidised help. My experience of counselling was interesting. The counsellor expected me to do most of the talking and sometimes we sat in silence. I remember thinking, ‘you get paid for this…?’ But step by step I found that it was really helping. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is say to someone else, ‘I need help’.

Trust in Jesus

My own story is of God leading me out of depression (I’m acutely aware this is not everyone’s experience). It’s not easy though, especially now. I’m living on my own, unable to physically meet up with the amazing woman I’m now in a relationship with (who works for the NHS – more anxiety!). I’m seeking to help navigate our wonderful church through lockdown. Writing this blog has also come at a cost, if I’m honest.

Yet I know that even when it seems there’s no light penetrating the gloom, and any positive feelings have gone AWOL, God is to be trusted. In Psalm 88 the writer never stops coming to God, never stops hammering on the gates of heaven. The Psalm ends – in the Hebrew text – with the word ‘darkness’. Yet it’s very existence in the Psalter sets it in a wider context, just as the inclusion of the Psalter in the whole Bible gives a wider context still. God reaches out to his people, sending Jesus to die for us and offering love and hope through faith in him. These things are true however we feel. Don’t stop trusting, for God will lead us through.

 

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Daily message – 30 Apr 2020

Eddie,

You and I need a Saviour who is near us, is one with us, understands us. All of this the Lord Jesus is, Hebrews affirms. Fix your gaze on this Christ and your whole Christian life will be transformed.

— Sinclair Ferguson, “In Christ Alone”

Acting with the Good News of Jesus (Colossians 3:18-4:1) Part 2

kathylarkman,

This post by kathylarkman was originally published at GRACE PLACE

Victoria Kelly, contributor for this month’s Colossians Study

Last week we explored the good news of Jesus living in us and us in him. Now our hearts are full of thankfulness and love because of the understanding of who Jesus is and what he has accomplished for us. This should then overflow into every area of our lives.We are saved by grace, so let’s live by grace.

This week we are looking at Colossians 3:18-4:1 and I’d encourage you to read this now.

Before we look at the relationship groups Paul discusses, let’s look to Jesus and what he tells us in John 13:3: ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. So I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ So whilst we may be able to disengage from some of the groups mentioned, for example if we aren’t married or maybe we are not considered a master or a parent, we still have a responsibility to love. To love how Jesus loved us: sacrificially, servant-hearted, humbly, unconditionally and all consuming.

Jesus conquered the law when he died for us on the cross. So we are no longer shaped by rules, BUT shaped by a Ruler. We have been bound to Christ and therefore it should shape every aspect of our lives. How can we achieve this? With the help of the Spirit shaping us through being in the Word; but we can actively and practically choose and take responsibility for our relationships and those around us too. Paul here gives us wisdom into how to do this with specific relationships and to live as a redeemed family.

Firstly, notice the pairings: wives and husbands; children and parents; slaves and masters. A relationship isn’t one sided, it has 2 sides and both are to take responsibility within their relationship, all the while doing it ‘in the name of Jesus,’ (3:17). And they only work properly when they both fulfil their roles.
Context for Colosse. Women, children, slaves were possessions to the master of the house. If you were one of these groups, you were owned by the man, the husband, the father. He had absolute authority, he was the head of household.

VKWhat is significant when Paul addresses the groups, is the less powerful group is addressed first: women, children, slaves. This would have been revolutionary for the time in Colosse, but Jesus’ teachings were revolutionary and Paul was following the example of Jesus (Matthew 20:16). All people were created in God’s image so all have importance and all have responsibilities.

Now there is new meaning to everyone’s roles as they are not only serving their counterpart, but Jesus!

The gospel gives us a new motivation and inspiration which transforms the ‘done VK 2thing’ into done for the Lord.

1) Wives and Husbands

‘Wives submit to your husband as in fitting to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.’ (Col 3:18-19)

Submission is to put yourself under someone’s authority. I don’t know how you feel when you hear that? For some women this may be a challenge, particularly in today’s society when women are allowed to be driven, successful and independent. And to be submissive doesn’t mean you can’t be these things. What it does mean, is when it comes to it, we are to be submissive to our husbands ‘as in fitting to the Lord’. So out of true love for Him, when we submit to our husbands, we are submitting to the Lord.

Interject the husband’s challenge to love his wife. When you look at the statements together it makes more sense. When the husband truly loves his wife, a love like Jesus loves (a sacrificial, unconditional love that took him to the cross), then it is easy to submit to him. When God grants authority, he does it for the love and protection of those under authority and never for the advantage of the ones in authority. Notice how neither statement follows ‘once your husband/wife loves you, then submit or love’. We are instructed to do it regardless.

Ephessians 5:22-33 gives a more detailed account of how husbands and wives are to respond together in love (I’d encourage you to read this now). Jesus always sets our example. He sets the example of how a husband should love his wife by how he himself loved the church. The church hasn’t always been the most beautiful bride, but he still loves it enough to die for it (Romans 5:8). So what about for those of us who are wives. What does it really look like to be submissive? Well, Jesus is our example too. Though he is equal to God, Jesus willingly submitted himself to the cross so that Satan’s dominion would be broken. The wife therefore, though equal to her husband, submits to him to reflect God’s image and to fulfill His purpose of dominion over satan.

Day to day, what does this mean? A submissive wife isn’t a meek wife who goes along with her husband, while keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself. This creates distance in the relationship. Or seemingly go along with what the husband says but on the inside is defiant, with a grudging compliance. That’s not Godly submission.

Close relationships are built on truthfulness and openness in a context of love (love being a verb, an action – something we do, not just feel). True submission and true love is communicated by actions and attitudes. A wife can be strong, but still be submissive in spirit if she respects her husband and backs his Godly leadership. A husband can love his wife because by doing so he is obeying and loving God. Tim Keller explains: The tender, serving authority of a husband’s headship and the strong, gracious gift of a wife’s submission restore us to who we were meant to be at creation.

A wife should submit to a disobedient husband except when she or the children are in danger or when he commands her to do something against God’s Word. 1 Peter 3:1-2 ‘Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.’ This means being a Godly example in the face of ungodly behaviour. Whatever his response, she will know that she is pleasing the Lord.

2) Children and Parents

‘Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.’ (Col 3:20-21)
As with the husbands and wives, you shouldn’t dislocate verses 20 and 21. Of course children should take their parents’ authority seriously, but how much more is the family home filled with love and joy and willingness to obey when the children are not discouraged or aggravated. Children should honour and obey their parents (it is one of the commandments after all: Exodus 20:12). Jesus submitted to his Heavenly father who is perfect, but he also submitted and obeyed his earthly parents, even though they were imperfect (Luke 2:51). So even if it is hard to obey your parents, you can do it for the Lord and know that He is pleased with you.Obeying cheerfully, not begrudgingly.

So what about parents? ‘Embitter’ can be anger/aggravation. It is the idea of motivating someone to negative actions/words. How can parents do this? By being unreasonable and not listening to a child’s explanation or considering the circumstance before passing judgement; unfair treatment – giving harsh punishment for a minor matter; being unpredictable – a child not knowing if a parent is going to blow up over a minor incident or even letting a major offence go by; breaking promises – a child can’t trust what a parent says. The list can go on. Does our Heavenly father deal with us in these same ways? No. We should aim to raise our children in the same way that God our Father relates to us: ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth.’ (Exodus 34:6). It should be descriptive of every Christian parent. God isn’t passive or abusive. He is just and patient. He takes the initiative to establish and provide a relationship with us. Our children are a blessing and he has entrusted us with them for a short while, to train them by example and by precept and we are accountable for this.

Of course discipline is a natural part of parenting. On more than one occasion, my children have decided to not look before crossing the road when they are running ahead of me (it doesn’t matter how many times I tell them to wait on the pavement for me and we will check cars together). In that split moment when you see a car hurtling towards them, of course I am going to react. I shout to get their attention and I will rebuke them for not listening to my instructions. But it isn’t out of annoyance that I shout at them at that moment. It is out of love. Love allows for correction and warning.

So our goal as parents should be to motivate children to be all that God wants them to be. To do that we need to let them know they are valued and loved. When they come into your presence let them feel that you were glad to see them, embrace them, play with them, serve them gladly, and speak kindly to them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matt 19:14. As always, Jesus is our example of how we should be as parents and as children.

3) Slaves and Masters

‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything… Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.’ (Col 3:22-4:1)

Slavery is probably not really in our day-to-day encounters in Corsham. And when we hear the word ‘slavery’ we might question why Paul didn’t start by rebuking masters for having slaves at all. Ultimately, Paul’s approach was to lay down universal principles which undermined the evils of slavery and eventually would lead to its demise. But in the meantime, Paul addressed the slaves first, elevating all work (Roman slave owners had come to view work as low and degrading). ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord not for men.’ (v23). As with the previous statements the verses go hand in hand. The words of wisdom are not just for the slaves to do their work well, but in fact for their masters to treat them with fairness and reminding them they also have a master who is master above all!

The slaves, who would have been seen as last in society are addressed first. He tells them they are actually serving a higher authority, God, and ‘will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.’ (v24). Wow. So the treatment, however harsh, however inferior they were made to feel won’t last forever. We might consider the modern day equivalent (although not exactly) to be an employee and employer. So what can we take from this?

Verses 22-24 make it clear that Christ is the Lord of the workplace (whatever you consider your work to be). ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.’

It is a heart matter how you work. The Bible tells us to work with sincerity and with reverence (fear) for the Lord, for he is watching. Matt 10:30 tells us that ‘even the very hairs on your head are all numbered.’ Our God is all knowing. This isn’t supposed to be threatening or discomforting. But actually God’s grace should encourage us and motivate us to do what is right, because our eyes are Heavenly focused.

So if we have a mean boss, know we have a ‘big boss’ who sees this. Your earthly boss is no longer your ultimate supervisor, Jesus is. Therefore your work should take on a new dignity. So whether we are an employee or an employer or even a stay-at-home mother (like me), we are to work with a positive attitude, producing quality work and obeying our master with reverence for the Lord.

Thinking back to last week, our hearts should be so full of gratitude and love and joy that it motivates us to want to love/act in a way that Jesus does. But we can only understand and know that if we are rooted in Him and if the Word dwells in us. Only then are we able to love others and serve others in a way that doesn’t require their love/service back. But when both counterparts work as the way God intended it, love and service is equal and perfect.

Questions for reflection

1) Read Colossians 3:17 and discuss how this verse is a guiding principle for Colossians 3:18-4:1
2) How does the christian attitude to relationships differ from modern views about personal rights?
3) What does “submission” and “love” in marriage look like? (Consider the wider context of the new life we are to live in Christ in Col 3:12-14)
4) What are the hardest aspects of your work and what about it makes it so difficult? Now, how might the reality that you are working for Jesus, not man, impact this aspect of your work? Be specific. Imagine yourself doing that least favourite part of your job for Jesus. How might it look different? (Psalm 100:2; Romans 12:11; Hebrews 6:10; Galatians 5:13; Colossians 3:23-24)

Dwelling in the Word: 27th April 2020

weba_admin,

This post by weba_admin was originally published at Seventy Two

Romans 8: 31-39

More than conquerors

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No-one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

‘For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Daily message – 29 Apr 2020

Tim Stephenson,

(On Gen 5:24) It must have been delightful for Enoch when, as a child said, he walked so far that he could not come back, but just went on.

— Amy Carmichael, “Gold by Moonlight”

Daily message – 28 Apr 2020

Eddie,

If Jesus is our example, then God expects us to say no to a lot of good things so that we can say yes to the most important things He has for us.

— Kevin DeYoung, “Crazy Busy”

Has bereavement touched someone close to you?

Tim Stephenson,

Maybe one of the most common reactions is to not know what to say or do. But don’t pull back just when your friend needs you. Here is sensitive and practical advice: Contact, Listen, Bless.