Resolve to live your life well.

It was Christmas Day yesterday, which means we have a week to out what we want to achieve or become over the next year. I have grown to appreciate what they stand for, but it has been a long road. Here’s a summary of my thinking.

James 4:13 warns us about thinking too much about doing such and such tomorrow. Jesus also tells us that tomorrow has enough concerns of themselves.

I also did not like the idea of having a list of accomplishments for accomplishment’s sake. To me, an accomplishment must come accompanied with something else. Medium-long term travel to a foreign land should be coupled with volunteering somewhere; a big running event should come with a fundraiser. Personal challenges seemed so selfish.

And, when looking for inspiration no-one had anything more coherent than “be more healthy.” What does that really mean? In January I would learn that it meant dieting or starting a new exercise regime, to be continued until march if you were well determined or February if you were lucky.

And self-improvement felt so secular. It is God that changes us, right? He does it naturally as we live our lives and read the bible and pray. No need to naval gaze.

That sounds good, but it is wonky thinking. My understanding of James neglected the next verse – and that verse is about boasting about tomorrow.  I took this to mean “don’t plan” The passage is a reminder that it is important to make plans, but doing so with the humility of knowing that our plans can go awry because God’s plans supersede ours.

Accomplishments can in themselves be a good thing. What, afterall, is wrong with electing to decide you will try to eat your Wagamama totally with chopsticks? Nothing – and the process will make your thumb stronger.

The inspiration is good, but what is wrong is the resulting goals. The are too vague. That is not the fault of the idea to change but the understanding of how change occurs.

Self-improvement as a concept recognises that there is something wrong with our lives. If we make a resolution we are saying we need to change. Surely this is at the core of the gospel!

But then, you may think, the gospel also holds that we cannot save ourselves, so the answer is not found in resolutions.

I would agree. The resolutions come because of the salvation found in Jesus, whose birth we celebrated yesterday.

it is out of love for what God has given, and the relationship Jesus gave me to God, and the Holy Spirit, that I must resolve to live a better life – a life as He intended.

That last bit is almost as vague as saying “be healthy.” The bible gives some astonishing specific guidance in certain circumstances, and more general principles to which to apply it. It is up to each one of us to examine our hearts, see what needs to be changed, resolve to live as God intends us to live.

This is a complicated process, and takes time. However at this time of year we have time to do some form of thinking. A while back I wrote a series of resolutions, with a similar mindset to Jonathon Edwards writing his 70. It started with homework my psychologist gave me. I had to place a numerical value on different aspects of my life, regardless of how my life reflected that number; I then had to write practical steps to redress the disconnect between the ones I valued but didn’t show.

The exercise is insanely practical, and I would encourage you to do similar: It helps you narrow what you want to become and how or why, and keeps us steady. My resolutions are not the gospel and do not save me, but God has used them to saved me from certain sins, as well as helping me seek forgiveness quicker than if I were just wandering.

As an example, here are some of the first few:

I will soak myself in his grace, by praying daily at least once, and reading his word. I will diligently make effort to take time to do this, for if I do not, I will find other things to do. As Jesus said, “seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you”. Listening to sermons and reading other devotions or texts will be secondary to this, to supplement what God teaches me in His Word and in my prayers. I shall not rest in the fact that I have read or that I am praying, for there-in lies the way to pride, but I shall seek God as revealed in the text, and rest in Him.

When I realise a sin, I will repent through praying to God my father, and asking his forgiveness and asking him to accept Jesus as my propitiation, and turning back from my sin, appropriating his grace, mercy and Spirit; and living out a life as an adopted Son of Him. This is the pattern laid down in Leviticus: “and when they become aware of their sin”; and also Luther’s first of ninety-five thesis: “all of life is repentence”.

I will do all the work that God has set before me, regardless of whether I enjoy it, knowing that he is pleased in my efforts, and that results are his business.

When I begin to struggle, be that in work, or thoughts, or in handling emotions, or temptations, I will pray and meditate on scripture.

I will keep healthy, as God commands that I am a temple, which he dwells in through His Spirit. Healthy means making time to exercise, be that cardio or strength – preferably both throughout the week, making time to read his word and pray, and ensuring a balanced diet – limiting foods high in sugar, salt or fat.

I wonder what you think of resolutions. Do you make them? Do you feel forced to make them, secretly resenting the knowledge that in February you will have forgotten about them? I haven’t added any new ones to my list, but I do have a renewed vigour for them!

From one depressed Christian to another.

It took a while but I finally had that conversation about Christmas. The other day, someone asked me if I felt Christmassy. The honest answer is no. I often struggle with my depression at this time of year and this year has been no exception. I don’t know why; all I know is that at some point I will feel my mood recess into depression, and it will last for probably a couple of weeks, sometimes longer. This year I’ve had an unusually high awareness of it happening, which has helped me remember lessons I have learned the hard way, through the life-course of my depression. They helped me survive the wave, which I am just coming out of.

Being a Christian leads to some unique challenges; the bible does have lots to say about depression, but the church is often guilty of saying “trust and obey, and it will go away”, while the reality is far more complicated. This a post I wish existed for me when I was first diagnosed with depression. I hope that it helps any depressive or anyone supporting someone with depression. Crucial note: I am not saying that by doing these things, the depression will go away – merely that doing these things will help you survive until it goes away. They are the Christian’s toolbox for survival, to go alongside the normal advice of eating well, sticking to routines, exercising, taking your meds (if that applies), doing the homework for your psychologist et cetera. It’s a long post, almost as long as a depressive episode feels! Take it all, or some, or none.

 

Let someone know; ask for prayer

The relationship with faith and depression is bizarre, and not as straightforward as causality or correlation. I think it works in a dimension that we haven’t discovered yet. Personally, when I’m low sometimes I am more aware of the need to pray, but feel less able; I also read the bible less (go figure: it’s something I normally enjoy – and as a symptom, interests normally go out the window).

Friends can pray for you, or send you verses to help you have a morsel when you are unable to eat meat.

But keeping friendships going is often the most difficult thing to do: to engage in conversation, to listen and laugh at the right times, to speak clear enough that others can actually hear me saps energy and frustrates me.  It is equally hard to get in touch when things are rough – but by gum, find a way to let someone know that you’re struggling.

If you can, work at preparing the soil in the good times. I moved city just over a year ago, and although I quickly settled into my new church, it took time to build relationships to a point where I could mention that I struggle with depression. This is partly the nature of relationships (they take time and energy, both of which can be a challenge for a depressive), but also because there are many misconceptions  people believe about depression, even in the church.

Mentioning your depression in the good times makes it a heck of a lot easier to send that text because your friends will already have some understanding. “I’m struggling” is easier to say than a longer back and forth conversation discussing how you feel and, no there is no real cause that you know of and yes I am on medication and no it doesn’t just go away by trying and it isn’t just laziness and do you know the waiting list for psychological support and look all I really need is someone to come and help me with those tasks you find so bloomineasylikemakethebedandtidythekitchen.

It is hard to be open and honest. For all of us. But it’s like a muscle: the more you do it, the stronger you get at it. But it is still tiring. It is easiest in the good times.

Be encouraged with the command that as Christians we are to “bear one another’s burdens.” (Galatians 6: 2). This is a two way street, but it does mean we should be able to find at least one person to be able to message when things are bad. If someone doesn’t try to understand, ditch them as a potential confidante; there are plenty of other people out there (you don’t need to announce this; just stop confiding the deep stuff with them).

If you don’t have anyone to turn to, find a prayer line. UCB’s Prayerline can be phoned or – perfect for the depressed man who finds it difficult to talk – emailed!

 

Serve where you can, pull back where you can

As Christians, we should be giving of ourselves as much as possible. A few weeks ago I wrote about how I discovered that fulfilling my wants is not as satisfying as doing my duties. I believe that what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 12 & 13 is: “we all have gifts; we are all to use those gifts to serve others with and in love.” This is good and healthy, but we need to be aware of our metal well-being. We can get pulled in too many directions, especially at Christmas!

one-sunday-in-advent-rev-jay-sidebotham

cartoon by Rev Jay Sidebotham, via Episcopal Church Memes

When depressed, I don’t have the energy to serve; and my mind is cloudy – which makes it difficult to see what needs to be done, let alone do it.
Furthermore, as an introvert I need time to myself. This is more pronounced when I’m low. To keep on serving is a dangerous plan and without exception has made me worse off. There are some things which are impossible to give up. The trick is learning what you can cut back or out, to carve time to exist and reduce the pressure. This takes a bit of play and thinking, and a friend to help you realise what can go on without you. For instance, on Saturday there was a prayer meeting at 8am. Friday night we made the decision that we wouldn’t go. Praying with others is awesome – but my body needed to sleep. Sleeping properly helped me be attentive during a training meeting for an event, though it was still hard, and then do some household tasks which needed doing, like pollyfilling a hole in the wall where the curtains came down, before rehanging them.

 

Cling on to the hope you have in Christ

It is true – all our needs are met in Jesus.
It is equally true that I can not explain this, or understand – particularly when I am low.
It is especially true that some well meaning people will smile benignly and remind you of Philippians 4.

Last Sunday I came to understand that it didn’t matter whether I understand. What matters is whether I choose to accept and trust that Jesus does meet our needs in his own time. It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand how the chemicals make pollyfill work; I could understand it perfectly but that is garbage if I leave it in the packet. Depression can cause us to doubt, lose hope, forget that Jesus loves us and knows our pain. Cling on.

I have had enough bouts of depression (of all severities) to be able to trust that they will go away. It isn’t easy to do so. When I’m low my thinking gets muddied. I often have doubts, so my aim is to cling on.

This trust is not a vague “i hope the bus will come on time today”, but a white knuckled clawing onto a branch amid a torrent of water.

 

Treat yourself with dignity

God gave us all talents and pleasures. These are good things. Use them. ‘Self-care’ is a term that is used by many professionals. Don’t think of it as guff or be afraid of it. Do things that you will enjoy. It takes time and energy to begin to do them, but do them anyway, knowing that they will help you relax – this is important. Listen to a favourite album. Make a bath. Watch Black Books. Read a book you’ve read a thousand times.

Treating yourself with dignity also means accepting that you are in a depressive state. This allows you to think more practically. So, although I will still panic about how much I have to do, I try to start somewhere, and prepare for it to the tasks taking as long as they take. Surviving means aiming for the baseline, not kingship.

Dignity also means accepting medical help when you need it. God gave us medications and doctors; accept these as a gift.

 

Go to church

Experientially, this is one of the hardest things. The church as a whole gets many things right, but depression can make church hard.
Depression makes you look inward, and now more than ever you need something or someone to force you to look outward and get grounded. We can only do this with the Holy Spirit’s help (there’s a prayer point for your prayer pals!) It will be hard to look at others in church and see them worshipping heartily with ease. They may not actually be at ease, but you will not believe that. This feeling is more pronounced in a charismatic church where people are raising their hands, seemingly en masse to the same bits every week; the same bits you find yourself disbelieving. Conversely it is easier to sit down and weep in a charismatic church, where people are used to seeing others down mid worship.
It will be hard to be with people at a time when you want to be by yourself. Go dragged by a friend, kicking and screaming and leave as quickly as you can if you must, but don’t neglect to go there in the first place.

There is very good reasoning behind Paul’s command to not “neglect to meet each other, as some are in the habit of doing.” I discovered this by accident a few months ago.

During worship, our heart can be turned be turned toward Jesus if we let it. Often during a depressive period it will take me a few weeks of sitting through church before my heart is warmed enough that I’m able to be thankful for anything as small as the sun being out. During those weeks grace dripped into my mind, and slowly worked. The warming can take a while, but when it starts – healing has begun. It may still take a while for the depression to lift. But if you are doing all of these things, you are hopefully surviving until it passes!

If you find any helpful morsel in this post, let me know! Remember, these things don’t make the depression go away. God does not say “you are depressed because you are weak of faith” or “you are depressed because you are living in sin.” Only He knows why he has given us these times. Yet he has given us these things to help us survive through them! Let’s use them gladly.

Rolling with the punches

It’s Monday morning, and I’ve been out for a 12 mile run.

That was supposed to be the first line of this morning’s blog, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s Monday morning, I’m writing at my normal time and drawing a line under this morning.

My alarm was set for 6.30, ready to get up at 6.45, ready to leave at 7.00, for a two hour glycogen depleted long run, back at 9. I woke at 7.00, got dressed, but then doubted what I should do since I was behind schedule. I knew it wasn’t going to be a long run, because I needed to be back home at 9. I thought through the options, which given the time of day and the different options took a while! A semi-long, 1 hr 30 run? A short 5k, fully breakfasted? An hour, there and back, glycogen depleted? a glycogen depleted 5k? I decided to have breakfast. But while I was eating, I felt that there would be two more options:  I would be running on a full stomach, and I was not psychologically prepared for that, or I run later because – TMI.

I was still dithering over what to do while putting on my trainers. I knew time only really permitted a shorter run, but then I couldn’t decide whether to do a fast blast or a slow and easy, and the trainer type mattered.

By this time, I realised that by the time I would be coming back, or even leaving the house, there would be more local people about, and this means a higher probability of being laughed at.

All or most new runners fear being laughed at either by other runners (who couldn’t care less about other’s running styles other than to see them improve!), and other people – who mostly don’t care. I remember specific examples within the past year of being laughed at while running, and put together they hurt. Even if I am able to carry on running that run according to plan, those specific times have added up, and they hurt. The gaggles of sarcastic cheerers, the man on who encouraged me to go faster when I was running up The Loan, a 1/2 mile steep incline which I often struggle to walk up, no doubt thinking he was being supportive – I replied a simple “no thanks” to which he told me to fuck off, or the child (yes, a child) who jumped up into my ear and shouted “HA HA!” while his mum stood by.

I have to laugh at the last instance, because at the time I was training for my marathon, and I was wearing my Scottish Association for Mental Health top! I know what people mean when they say I shouldn’t let these moments get to me; that in changing my plans because of the fear of it happening again means they have won, but these moments stick. I once was scared of running next to the high school at about 8.45, past all these big lads. No-one was interested. But the mockery still hurts enough to have made me worried about that route that morning!

It hurts because I run to improve myself so I can live my life better, not just for me but for others. It hurts because I already have my inner demons telling me that I am not worth it, that I am a failure, that I am useless. It hurts because when I change my plans according to these thoughts, my inner demons have another tool to screw me over – that I let them win, and this further demonstrates my weakness!

When I am feeling low, running helps, because of the increased dopamine and the sense of accomplishment which comes all too rarely as a depressed person.

If I don’t run, my mood worsens or at the very least doesn’t get any better; but if I run and get laughed at, my mood is not much better! So what am I to do?

Sometimes it is healthy to change your plans. I have learned that it is often best if I run outside my local area. I really wish it wasn’t so, but in Edinburgh itself (I live in South Queensferry), I have the freedom to run in my own style. If I run from home, the timing of the run matters; I know that if I am mocked toward the end of my run, I have the security of the past 20 or 40 minutes to ground myself which makes it easier to handle. First thing on Saturday or Sunday is easier, because no-one else is around! My mood before leaving is also important: I know that if I am laughed at when I am already feeling low, it is harder to handle, and my mental state doesn’t really improve. In this case, it is wiser to change the order of things.

I think this was one of those mornings. It was also a case of lots of should haves. There always are. But, working with my own limitations, it is no wonder that I was doubting and worrying so much. I am working on one hour less sleep than normal! I did get up earlier than normal – let’s celebrate that! and I went to bed earlier than normal – but I slept according to my normal body clock. My natural temperament is one of pessimism, I guess. My brain doesn’t generally work until I’ve been up for an hour. So I should have got up and gone for a run and played it by ear while out.

But I was also rolling with the punches that I have previously been thrown while out for runs.  Instead of fighting back, I was letting them determine my current actions. I would love to be in a place that meant I went for it regardless of what others, including myself – be that in running or other areas of life. I love how Luke Tyburski considers himself – really, he doesn’t. He almost invites people to laugh with him! I have a lot to learn.

What do your critics – either your inner ones or external – say about you? how do you handle them and do the thing anyway! I’d love to hear from you!

Give me dutiful deeds, not fleeting feelings (a personal battle)

My wife and I are writing 30 before 30 lists. Some are practical (learn car maintenance), some are big goals which will require a crazy amount of hard work (a sub 2 hour half marathon), some are things I’ve wanted to do for years (LeJog), and some are, well, deeply personal. One has come out of the last two weeks of experimenting with duty: learn true courage.

We’ve all heard the quote – a quick search reveals many original speakers, suggesting no-body actually knows who said it first – that “courage isn’t the absence of fear but triumph over it.” My experience of the last two weeks of doing what I ought has shown me that it isn’t just fear that stops us doing things. Malaise, apathy, discouragement, laziness, forgetfulness and any number of other vices stop us doing what we need to do. Courage is overcoming these vices. During week 1 I learnt a little of what it is like to do so.

In week 2, I forgot those lessons and what I felt like doing was more prominent in my decision making. In sum, it was a terrible week. Without going into details, because that would not be fair on the relevant parties, this week I have caused untold damage and hurt because I did not do what I ought, and I don’t mean dishes. I myself am still healing, and it will take time – for the parties to forgive me too. Friends, I would like to warn you about the dangers of following your desires from my own story of this week, but I am not ready to talk about it. Let’s instead look at the good that can come from doing the right thing, but first a warning from CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew.

Digory has been sent to a distant place to pick an apple to bring it back to Narnia, which will protect the land from the witch. He also knows an apple from the tree will heal his ailing mother.

Digory walked straight to the tree, picked an apple, and put it in the breast of his Norfolk jacket. But he couldn’t help looking at it and smelling it before he put it away.
It would have been better if he had not. A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit.

We later learn what would have happened if Digory had taken another apple for his ill mother. Aslan is blunt:

It would have healed her; but not to your joy or hers. The day would have come when both you and she would have looked back and said it would have been better to die in that illness.

We learn here that we must quell even the smallest desire for evil before they grow. And that even our desire for good things (Digory just wanted his mum to be healed) can be out of whack. We must learn to do what right for the right reasons and in the right manner, in the right time. Right?

I learnt over the past two weeks that there are some good reasons to do the right thing no matter what, namely:
The peaceful life that comes from not harming yourself or others.
The accomplishing of greater tasks. This is the theory of bed making, which a colleague and I continually refer to, asking each-other if we’ve made our beds that day!
The good feelings that can come from doing things anyway (9.5 mile run home from work on a Monday, in the dark, for the WIN!).

But these pale in significance to two reasons I discovered for both doing the right things and not doing the wrong things despite our feelings (or, as I now call it, abstaining from wrong and doing right to spite my feelings).

not committing some sins can lead to other sins coming to the fore
This may sound counter-intuitive. Why would I want other sins coming forward? Well, because it means I can deal with them. For instance, I thought I had dealt with anger. I thought I had learnt how to handle annoyances so they don’t become anger, especially when driving. Turns out, I have some things to learn about it. Day 1 of my experiment, I was doing great. I had got up early, made the bed, gone for a 5k run, done the dishes, read some bible and prayed, and was doing an errand I had been putting off – returning an item to TKMaxx, which meant leaving for work early. I left later than planned, but still with time. No worries. All good. Zen. Until some jerk in a lorry decided to tailgate me, trying to push me over the speed limit, before undertaking me (above the speed limit) on the slip road I was about to take! It was a busy road, and there were no gaps to take. Thankfully I remembered that the slip road has two lanes, or I literally would have been on the road to Glasgow, rather than Edinburgh (imagine that phone call to the boss!). I was livid. But I recognised this and was able to stop it before it took over and dominated the rest of the day, as it would have done a few years ago. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t done the right things earlier and so been otherwise peaceful, my mind would have been muddied and unable to see this happening.

Doing what is right leads to renewed or continued desire and vigour for the things of God
During week 1 of the experiment, I forced my phone out of my hand during my morning coffee. I read through the Valley of Vision, going through prayers for the morning. More often than not the act of praying led to reading the bible. Honestly, I hadn’t had a week like that in far too long. It isn’t that those things save me, but it forces me to give up my evil passions, partly because I see them for what they are and partly because I see God for who He is. These things struck home that week:

“when we are tempted to wander, hedge up our way, excite in us an abhorrence of sin”
“Keep our hearts from straying after forbidden fruit.”
“Give us closer abiding in Jesus that we may bring forth more fruit, have a deeper sense of our obligations to him, that will may surrender all, have a fuller joy, that we may serve him completely.”

Through praying and reading God instructs me on a better way of living, teaches me who he is which makes me want to do his bidding. Again from the Valley of Vision:

Most high God,
The universe with all its myriad creatures is thine,
made by thy word, upheld by thy power, governed by thy will.
But thou art also the Father of Mercies;
the God of all grace,
the bestower of all comfort,
the protector of the saved.
Thou hast been mindful of us,
hast visited us, preserved us,
given us a goodly heritage-
the Holy Scriptures,
the joyful gospel,
the saviour of souls.”

To know such a God breeds the desire to do right. And doing right helps keep that desire alive in ways I can’t yet explain. But that’s my testimony from the last two weeks!

 

This generation doesn’t like the idea of duty. I myself am scared of the word so often. But if these last two weeks have showed me anything it’s that doing the dutiful thing regardless of what we feel can lead to delight. So in future I will be doing my darndest to do all that is required of me, day in, day out. Of course, I will fail. But I believe it is imperative to do all I can to be courageous and not give in to my vices. To let feelings float till I know whether they will do harm or good, and instead do the dutiful deed.

Over to you. What do you feel and think about duty? Do you have a sense of duty toward God or others? Do you think our obedience to God should be tied to our feelings or a sense of duty, or a middle ground?
In practical terms, are there any duties you are putting off? What small things around the house or at work can you do right now?