Category: Peter Morden Series

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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Count your Blessings

admin,

This post by admin was originally published at Seventy Two

The phrase ‘count your blessings’ has become something of a cliché. Worse still, it can sometimes be said unfeelingly when people are in distress. It is vital to deal pastorally and carefully with one another and walk sensitively alongside those who are hurting. This is particularly so in this time of Covid 19. Do you know someone who is broken, grieving, physically unwell, or struggling financially? Do you know a key worker on the brink of exhaustion, or a person who is wrestling with mental health issues in this time of lockdown? Please don’t say ‘count your blessings’! Probably the best thing we can do is journey alongside our friends and simply love them as best we can. Henri Nouwen once said this:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain… The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.[1]

Is God calling you to be that friend for someone today?

Alternatively, perhaps it’s you who is in pain. May God give you people who will walk alongside you – although it may have to be virtually rather than physically. If you feel totally isolated do contact someone. I’d love to hear from you. Following Jesus is something we do in community. Of course Jesus himself is our greatest friend and we can turn to him at any time. But so often his grace is mediated to us through other people. We all need friends who care.

Yet for all Christians who are in a place to receive the message, we really can count our blessings or at least try. Doing so each day is a healthy a spiritual discipline, one which strengthens us as disciples and helps us to maintain our joy in Jesus. Psalm 65 shows us what some of these blessings are.

Firstly, there are the blessings of creation. God formed the ‘mountains by his power’ (v 6); indeed, he created the whole cosmos. But more than that he sustains his creation. In verses 9-13 we see this beautifully expressed. Have a look at the Psalm and take time to drink in the poetry of these verses. True, we have spoilt creation which ‘groans’ as a result, waiting for its ‘liberation’ which will take place at the return of Christ (Romans 8.18-22). Yet God still cares for it (and, of course, calls us to join with him in this vital work). By his grace, creation is still wonderful, and so we praise him for all he has made. I’ve found you can do this even in an urban environment. If you’re able to get outside for a walk, run or cycle today drink in the beauty of what God has made. And be grateful.

Secondly, there are the blessings of salvation. Verses 2-5 are a powerful summary of the gospel. We were ‘overwhelmed’ by sins, but God heard our prayer and chose us for forgiveness. All this is perfectly fulfilled in Jesus: it is he who has made this possible through his ‘awesome deeds of righteousness’ (v5). In a time of uncertainty, where so much is changing, our salvation is based on the work of Jesus and guaranteed by God’s promises. No one can take it away. Here is blessing indeed.

Overall, the Psalm speaks of God’s ‘staggering generosity’.[2] What a privilege to recount all he has done and worship our creator and saviour God, the one who blesses us so ‘we shout for joy and sing’ (v 13). Try counting your blessings today. Once you’ve started, you may find it difficult to stop.

 

[1] Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Psalms, Augsburg, 1984, p136

 

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How Long O Lord?

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

For this post you really need Isaiah 6 in front of you. In fact, if you’re short on time skip this blog and just read the chapter. All of it. Not just the encouraging bits but the verses that don’t seem to make any sense. Isaiah 6 is God’s word to us in these difficult, disorientating times.

The chapter is rich and there are so many themes that could be followed up. The opening vision is breathtaking. Verses 1-8 speak of the majesty and holiness of God and how we’re saved through sacrifice. We marvel at God’s awesome nature and superabundant grace. We’re dazzled by what we see here.

All of this is perfectly fulfilled for us in Jesus. He dies in our place to make an intimate relationship with a holy God gloriously possible. Our sin and our guilt are dealt with. This is a message for our times – and for any time. Believe and receive.

What’s more we see he commissions us. It’s extraordinary really. We know ourselves only too well. We’re aware we let God down and of course he knows this far better than we do. But still he calls, still he commissions, still he sends. If we’ve really grasped this, we will want to say with the prophet: ‘Here am I, send me.’ This too is a message for our times. If you read this and sense God calling you to renew your commitment to him and his work then pause and do just that. If it’s only one person who responds in this way, writing this blog will have been more than worthwhile.

Yet it’s not the first eight verses that especially draw me at the moment. It’s the last four. Those difficult verses which appear so perplexing and which seem to strike such jarring, discordant notes. Because Isaiah’s ministry isn’t quite what we would have expected. After such a vision and such a call surely revival is about to break out in the land? We think the prophet will speak and people will hang on to every word. Personal transformation, community transformation – you name it, it will happen. But that’s not what we see. Rather it’s a long, tough struggle. Isaiah understandably cries out, ‘how long O Lord?’ Surely things will change now. But no, when God speaks it’s more of the same. Things are simply not working out the way anyone had hoped. These are troubled times, and there’s lots of confusion.

But here’s the thing. Isn’t this how many of us feel today? Personally, I’m frustrated and sad. Our church life was going really well. Conversions, baptisms and growth. A café had started and was helping us connect with more and more people. A new member of staff was encouraging a greater depth of missional discipleship. What’s more – I believed – this was only the beginning. And then Covid 19. The café is closed and the new group who are ready to be baptised have to wait. We can’t meet at all physically. Our online services are going well but, to be honest, it seems so much like second best. And now we’ve taken the difficult decision to furlough some of our wonderful staff. It’s frustrating, unexpected, confusing.

You may be a church leader and feeling something similar. But I suspect there are many others who could insert their own experiences here. You had great plans for mission and ministry, but they just need to be shelved for the moment. Maybe you were growing a business in a way which honoured God and contributed to the work of his Kingdom, now you’re having to tell staff they’re furloughed and that you don’t know whether the business will survive. Perhaps you’re self-isolating. Perhaps you’re grieving. Insert your own circumstances here. You don’t know what to cry to God. Except perhaps, ‘How long O Lord?’

Yet there is hope – and what hope it is. The final verse – the holy seed – speaks of the coming of Jesus. Covid 19 doesn’t have the last word. Jesus does. And that word is hope. Hope that can’t be kept down, which pushes through the devastation and blossoms into life.

What’s the practical takeaway here? It’s really to be faithful in the here and now, a faithfulness which is fired and sustained by our Christian hope. God called Isaiah to press forward in his difficult calling. And God – this extraordinary, holy, gracious, mysterious God – did his work through his prophet. He is trustworthy. Be faithful to him in what you have to do now, however unexpected and unwelcome. If you’re furloughing staff, do it well, bringing God’s wisdom and grace to bear. If you’re being furloughed, react in a way that’s different because you have Jesus. If you had big, expansive plans and find yourself stuck behind your four walls, try and be faithful there.

These are big challenges. Yet as this chapter shows us, we live for a God who is mighty and gracious. A God who always has the last word. And for today, that word is irrepressible Jesus-shaped hope.

 

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The Cross: Costly and Free

Peter Morden,

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

This is a time like no other. That’s certainly how it seems to many. The country is in lockdown. The Prime Minister is intensive care. Nearly all of us have a friend, relative or colleague who has become unwell with corona virus / Covid 19. Most of us know a person who is seriously unwell. Many of us know someone who, tragically, has lost their lives. There is nothing good about this virus. It takes life, shatters families, destroys livelihoods. These are unprecedented days.

In the UK we are deeply grateful for the National Health Service. Unlike many countries, our healthcare is free at the point of delivery. Excellent care is available to everyone, whatever their income. But we recognise there is a cost, not least to those who are involved at the sharp end: doctors, nurses and other medical staff who put themselves at risk day after day. Some have paid the ultimate price, giving their lives in the service of others. The rest of us owe all who work in the NHS a significant debt. If this is you, we are so grateful, and you are in our prayers.

It was a day like no other. The cheering crowds of Palm Sunday had given way to the jeering rabble of Good Friday. The terrible cry went up: crucify him! Jesus was led away, humiliated, beaten and in agony nailed to a rough wooden cross. This happened so that through it we could receive something wonderful and free. When his death finally came the ‘curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Matt. 27.51).’ Probably this was the curtain that separated the sanctuary from the public forecourt. Its rending would have been a vivid physical sign: the way to God is open. The tearing from top to bottom was both dramatic and final. Something irreversible had happened. And the point is that God had done it. All people had to do was walk through. The salvation Jesus won on the cross was – and is – a free gift to us. All we have to do is receive it by faith.

Yet what a cost there is. The physical suffering alone is impossible to imagine. But something more was happening, as indicated by Jesus’ shattering cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Matt. 27.46)?’ He is quoting from Psalm 22 but these words describe his own personal experience at that moment. Indeed, never have those words been spoken with such deep meaning and feeling, either before or since. The modern hymn puts it well: when Jesus was on the cross ‘the Father turned his face away’. The cross is a truly God-forsaken place. Jesus dies instead of us. He bears the weight of our sin, rebellion, shame and guilt. We go free. But what a cost.

It’s always important to apply God’s word to our lives. Of course we wonder and worship. In many ways today this is enough: to stand still and contemplate the cross and all it means and praise our God. But perhaps this Good Friday we are called to something more. Faced with this unprecedented event and living in these extraordinary times God calls us to an unprecedented commitment to him. For some it’s a first-time commitment. For some it’s a recommitment. For all it’s a call to echo the words of the great hymn:

Were the whole realm of nature mine

That were an offering far too small

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all (Isaac Watts)

As the recipients of such a gift and faced with such a cost can we do any less?

 

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