The Depressed Christian: part 2 – sin

I’m sorry. This post should have been live last Thursday. It was more than writer’s block: I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t open up Scrivener, let alone write the words. It wasn’t just procrastination. Normally I can get going by throwing down a quick first draft, but there were too many ideas, too many doubts. It wasn’t a lack of time, for there was ample, and we give our time to what we care about. The task was just too much. It was a difficult post to write – I joked with a friend that the topic could easily become 73 posts! I somehow pushed through and ended up with a first draft, though it was nowhere near ready to go live. I still feel it isn’t ready: there is so much more to say on the topic, so let’s consider this a starting point for discussion. Nevertheless, apologies for not finessing it and getting it live.

You were expecting a post on Thursday, because I stated I would be posting every Thursday, and I let you down for apparently no good reason. It looks like laziness or procrastination or writer’s block when in reality the stumbling block was my depression. And yet, I feel I need to apologise.

Let’s take another example. On Monday I impressed my wife by leaping out of bed at the sound of my alarm to go for a run. She was less than impressed when a few minutes later I crawled back into bed. I made excuses, of course I did – that I hadn’t slept well enough, that it was too cold. But really, inside I was just low. But is that in itself an excuse? Was I really low, or just demotivated?

And here-in lies the dilemma the depressive has. There is often a felt need to apologise for the depression, because of what it does. But there is a fine line between apologising for the effects of depression and apologising for the depression itself. It’s such a fine line it’s almost non-existent and I’m essentially playing with words. There is also a balance between where normal behaviour ends and depression begins. It is close to the eternal debate: is there any point at which my depression is sin, or sinful?

There are three mistakes we can make with regard to this issue. One is to ignore it completely. The other is to come into it with the assume one way or other, with a lack of appreciation for the opposing view. These are both disasterous because there may be an ounce of truth in the other side. The depressed Christian needs to not only hear but find the truth. This should include thinking through the most bizarre thought processes: for the depressed Christian, this is not a theoretical question postulated by clever theologians in late-night discussions, pipe and dram in hand, but an insanely practical one. It has to do with one’s own salvation, and therefore one’s current and future hope; something which is sorely lacking during a depressed episode. And it is hope that gives reason to keep on plodding forward. Think of it like this: when I was a teen I listened to Led Zeppelin – very very loudly. When asked to turn it down by any family member, I would retort “but it’s Led Zeppelin: they deserve to be played loudly!” A depressed person needs our support, and that means giving them an airing for their inner thoughts: as illogical as they may sound they may have some truth in them.

Some would say that depression in and of itself is sinful. A typical argument would go like this. As a Christian, you are to be joyful. Paul gives the directive, not a suggestion, to “be joyful in hope” (Romans 12:12a). Jesus commands us to lay our burdens down at his feet, and to not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Or again, “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). In addition, anyone who is not for Christ is against him. Therefore, if we are not trusting in Him for a time can we still claim to be Christians? This leads to doubt about our salvation, especially if we are depressed and unable to trust anyone. Therefore, if you are not abounding in joy you are a weak Christian. Here’s an actual quote from a web page:

[depression comes because of, among other things]
“7. A lack of faith and trust in God, a lack of contentment and high self-esteem are the root causes of anxiety and depression.
8. The bad news is that non-Christians have no escape of anxiety and depression because they have no one that is looking out for their wellbeing.”

http://www.bible.ca/psychiatry/psychiatry-junk-science-anxiety-depression-myth.htm

I think the second statement is a very wrong statement to make. It is self-evidently untrue. Non-Christians do have people looking out for them. Indeed, the non-Christian psychologist I saw was most helpful; the non-Christian GPs were all fantastic. What the author is getting at, though, is that Christians have a great friend and helper in Christ. Therefore we have a particular ‘ escape route’ from depression. Yet ‘escape route’ is a faulty image. It suggests the way is well lit, clearly marked, and takes you directly to freedom, when the reality is far different – I’ll be posting more about what healing looks like in a future post. But the rough argument has some truth in it. They are, after-all, direct quotations.

 

But there is another simple conclusion to draw when we consider the definitions of the issue at hand.

Sin: those things we do or fail to do which displease God, that go against his will. To sin against someone is to do something contrary to their wishes.
Depression: an illness which causes a lowering in mood for a period of time – not just regular ‘sadness’. I like to think of it as an illness which presses down on you and makes all the normal things difficult – responding to emotions properly, making wise choices, getting things done, thinking properly.

So from that the obvious answer would be that it is not a sin to have depression, any more than it is sinful to have a broken arm. Depression is something that happens to you, for whatever reason. You cannot control depression happening to you.

But I think there’s more to the story.
Let’s consider the above quote.

“Depression comes from a lack of faith and trust in God, a lack of contentment and high self-esteem.”

Let’s focus on high self-esteem.
Timothy Keller once argued in a sermon that although we as a society hold low self-esteem to be the root causes of many of our social ills, it is actually the opposite and that we are really only society to hold this view. Is this as bonkers as it initially sounds? It sounds wacky, because we are so assured in our own belief, but it does make some sense. If I were to break into someone’s home, do I think highly or lowly of myself? I would be thinking that I am better than you, and that your security and feelings of safety are not worth my salt. If I were shout at my wife, would that come from thinking nothing of myself? Not really, because in that situation I would be believing that I am right about this issue, regardless of whether I am actually right or not.

But what about other symptoms of depression, such as self-harm (I write as someone who has self-harmed). Do we harm ourselves because we think too highly of ourselves or too low? Too lowly, most would assume, as I used to. You can’t think highly of yourself if you are willing to harm yourself – surely that says you believe you are not worth anything? No. I harmed because I felt I had no other way to release my emotions. I felt that cutting would help, more than any other methods. My way of dealing with my emotions was right, and I refused to listen to the people telling me it wasn’t the best way. If I had been more humble, I would have tried other methods.

Low self-esteem does cause issues, that is true. People hold very real fears about not being good enough for a certain task. Runners get this – “I’m too slow to call myself a runner!” Heck, Dick Beardsley thought as he was standing at the start, right before his 1982 Boston Marathon, “what am I doing here, with all these great elites…”

It is too high a view of ourselves that makes us think that we are right, and that others are wrong. This goes for out attitude God. When Adam and Eve first ate the fruit in the Garden, they said that God’s way was not the right way. If they weren’t thinking of themselves they would trusted God, not the serpent.

So high self-esteem causes some problems, specifically not trusting God – the first sin. In that sense the author is correct. But does it cause depression? Not in itself, but if it leads us to not trust in God, this causes sin, and this can cause depression. Or to say it another way, this can cause depression.

Spiritual depression

In our medicalised society we have tended to shy away from the idea of spiritual depression. I haven’t, as far as I remember, heard a live sermon on it. I think this is because we are frightened to suggest it exists, because we are frightened of the consequence – that the depressed person will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find solace by examining their sins, repenting, and yet not seeing freedom from their depression. We are so assured that all depression is physical, we forget this exists. In my next post I’ll be discussing other types.

Yet spiritual depression is one type of depression. Physical depression is another. Martin Lloyd-Jones has an incredibly helpful series on the matter. It was recorded long before Led Zeppelin, probably on an 8-track. The quality is therefore understandably poor and you will need your best speakers turned up louder than I used to listen to Led Zep just to be able to make it out. But in his gentle way he acknowledges that a Christian can be ‘unhappy’ (a term which was a great deal stronger than our current definitions), but can find joy. Check the whole series out here. Alistair Begg also touches on the issue here.

All I can really do here is remind us of Psalm 32, with two clear caveats.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

– Psalm 32: 1-5

In the first part, the symptoms of the unconfessed sin match very closely with that of depression. “my bones wasted away… my strength was sapped… your hand was heavy on me…”

This makes it clear that:
1. Our sin can cause depression, but remember, not all depression is caused by sin.
2. We mustn’t be afraid of introspection. If sin is the cause of a depression, we can only find this out through prayer, introspection and talking things through. We should help a depressed Christian think through their innermost thoughts while reminding them of the greater truths. A very fine trick if you can do it: throw them a life-ring, encourage them to put it on, but allow them to swim to safety at their own rate.
3. if the depression is not caused by a sin, that will become apparent with time. God forgives. So if having repented we are still not free from the depression, there must be some other reason.

I have been disuaded from introspection both from friends and the pulpit. I have always attended churches which proclaim Christ and Christ alone as our savour and hope, but is realistic about our sinful nature. I have heard people promote the idea that for every time we look inward we should look ten times at Christ. But there is a danger in this truth, in that people tend to spend so much time looking outward they forget about looking inward.
There is lots more to say. Next week, I’ll be considering the same issue from a slightly different point of view. For now, let’s remember that depression in and of itself is not sinful.

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The Depressed Christian: part 1 – definitions

I will say it again. Yes, Christians can have depression. We are humans, liable to the same illnesses as anyone else. Think about it: 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental health problems in any one year (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). That could be depression, or anxiety, bipolar, trauma, or other mental health issues. In Scotland, 1 in 10 adults had experienced two or more symptoms of depression or anxiety in that year (2012-2013). So in a church with a congregation of 10, it is likely that one member has had depression in the past – and that there would be at least two people who have experienced some form of mental health issue. And without being too technical, the research is unequivocal in that if someone has experienced a depressive episode before, they are likely to have another at some point in their life. The life-course of depression is not like that of a broken arm. So, we need to talk about it. Examine it. Study it. Ask questions. Look inward at ourselves and outward to others. Depression is real. And within the church.

And church is all about healing people by pointing people to Jesus Christ. As it should be. But with those statistics and that statement in mind, we immediately come to a a few problems. What does healing look like? Is there a relationship between sin and depression? How does trusting in Jesus heal someone of depression? Is trusting in Jesus enough to see me healed – should I abstain from meds, for example? If I am not being healed, does this mean I am not trusting enough?

Fundamental misunderstandings of depression have unfortunately skewed the church’s understanding of how to help people heal. In my experience, it took me about three years to answer the fundamental question of what healing in my situation looked like. I do wonder if healing might have been simpler if I hadn’t been a Christian: I would have the ‘gold star treatment’ (an actual term used by my GP) of meds, psychology and exercise and be done with it.

 

The promises of the bible are true, but often they are turned into trite truisms, which minimise the struggles of someone with anxiety or depression. I found this picture this morning, and my honest response was “ugh.” I’m sure it is meant to help, but it just makes me doubt! And because I doubt, this feeds more doubt!

trust-in-jesus

True point, not very well made.

It is into this murkiness and confusion of being a Christian who has depression that I would like to write in the next few weeks. I’ll be examining some truths within the bible, combining it with a bit of ‘secular’ (horrible, self-conscious word) research and personal experience, and hopefully bring some clarity to help individual Christians who have depression, or those who look after someone with depression.

But before I do, I’d like to define two key terms.
Depression. There are different types of depression – major, dysthymia, postnatal, atypical etc – but they are all characterised by common symptoms, for example: loss of hope and enjoyment of hobbies/interest, feeling tearful for no apparent reason, lowered self-esteem, difficulty in making decisions (even basic ones like whether to make the bed or get dressed first), lowered sex drive, moving or speaking slowly, heaviness in arms or legs, headaches, changes to sleep (under or over sleeping)… for at least two weeks. More info at NHS Choices and Patient.co.uk. The length marks it out as being different to regular emotions, which  – don’t get me wrong – we all still need to be supported in.
Christian. Sometimes it is helpful to define what being a Christian isn’t. Going to church on a Sunday doesn’t make me a Christian any more than going to Murrayfield would make me a rugby player; reading the bible doesn’t make me a Christian any more than reading The Great Gatsby turns me into Fitzgerald. It isn’t about being good in a tenant/landlord transaction, in which I do good deeds and hope that God won’t kick me out of His Kingdom. It is about recognising that in myself I am not good enough to enter into His presence, and that my sin – “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, any law of God” (Westminster Catechism, in which I take ‘any law’ to mean the whole of Scripture, not just the 10 commandments) – requires punishment. And Jesus took that punishment for me. If I didn’t trust Him I would be going to Hell, and as I love him for doing that for me, I aim to follow Him in all I do. I now have freedom from that punishment, and the freedom to choose not to sin – and the promise of eternal life.
Luther said it better in his Catechism: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

Next week I’ll be asking: “is there a relationship between depression and sin?”

Playing with your Plans

You may (or may not) have noticed that I posted neither last week nor yesterday. The reason: It was the latest in my 7 year long experiment with integrity.

Integrity is a challenge. It means follow-through on everything you say you will do, and not doing the things you say you won’t. As well as acting (or not acting) on your core beliefs. All. The. Time. 
At first I thought it was enough to make a fool-proof plan. I now know that plans don’t work in the myriad challenges life throws at you. Yet plans have their value. I used to make them and try to stick to them. Where I failed to follow through, I would pore over the plan trying to figure out whether it was over ambitious or not full enough, or broken down into manageable steps.

But failure isn’t always the plan’s fault. I’ve tried, for example, both the one and two year McCheyne Bible Plan a few times. That many people continue to use it tells me that it is certainly followable, but each time I have failed in the past to go beyond Job.

My problem seems to lie into my attitude to planning. More than anything, last year’s marathon training taught me this: have your plan, but be prepared for it to not go to plan: pre-determine your non-negotiables. Everything else is bonus. This gives you the freedom to play around with the plan as necessary while still keeping on target. Ironically, having thought about the potential flexibility built in makes the plan itself less frightening – so you’re more likely to follow-through.

I did not do every run as planned, due to minor injuries, time and (whups) laziness. But no matter what I did during those months, I aimed to do the Long Slow Distance, because according to the experts, this is the most important training run for the marathon. 

I’m taking this thinking into the McCheyne plan.My non-negotiables are to finish it and to not miss a day. As the plan starts January 1st, I am technically a few weeks behind – but I really don’t care. If I miss a day in my personal schedule, I won’t try and play catch-up by reading two days worth of passages in one. I tried that in the past, and it made it more difficult to keep to the plan overall, because I tended to miss days thinking “ahh I’ll catchup when I have time.” The time of day I read is negotiable. For me it is unrealistic to read at the same time each day, because I am not yet ready for that kind of meticulousness.

Similarly, I have (finally) decided on a marathon training plan, after experimenting with what Great Run, Runtastic and a few other places had to offer. Last year I had to narrow the choices down from many and try to work out what the best plan for me was, without having done a marathon. Now I have one marathon under my belt; and one marathon is 26.2 miles and 4 months more experience than I had last time. This makes it easier.

The non-negotiables: the build-up and distances of the long runs; a reasonable (challenging but doable) distance through the week. Anything else, for example, the days the runs falls on and the type of speedwork, is secondary. I can muck about with the days and the type of speedwork.

For example, instead of Saturdays or Sundays, I have radically altered the training schedule to make the long run fall on a Monday morning. This is not so crazy sounding in the first few weeks of 5-8 miles, but will definately be mad when it gets to 18 miles.  We’ll see how this plays out, and I am willing to change it if it is too much. But as it’s a non-negotiable, it’s going to happen. 

Why change it to Monday? As I discovered yesterday:

  • I start the week on a high, the same reason I like publishing a post on Monday – it is an early accomplishment in the week.
  • The long run is arguably the most important run. So it checks it off.
  • Having run 5 miles in the first day of the week, or 11 miles in week 7, makes the other runs less daunting (no more than 3 each for the rest of this week)!
  • It will teach me to get up early, and go to bed early on Sunday night.
  • Yesterday morning’s was definitely awesome thinking time, and that has only happened a handful of times; doing it later means I’m more tired which makes the whole thing worse.
  • As I plan to cycle to and from work (9 miles each way) after the run, I will have to keep it slow and manageable, which will mean I am training at the right pace. 

With this change of plan, I won’t be able to post on Monday – so I have changed my posting day to Thursday. Not posting last week and yesterday reminded me that my plan for the blog was to post once a week. That’s a non-negotiable. Which day I post, is.

 Coming up on Thursday: the first in a series about depression and chrsitianity.

 

Be Content with your Changes

Running has taught me many things about life.

This weekend’s lesson running: no matter what I do, I will probably be as discontent with my health as I was when I first laced up my trainers. I realised this while signing up for Freeletics at the weekend. I had to place myself on a three tier scale. I realised that while some of you may percieve me as “definitely fit”, I would percieve myself somewhere between “not so” and “quite” fit. When I did the Edinburgh Marathon, there were at least 6000 people far fitter than me! But that I finished showed me I’m fitter than others. Simply put – my fitness is not where I would like it to be. Will I ever be content? I was content to have finished a marathon, but not content with how I finished it. I was content to get a great PR on Sunday, but I look forward to the day when I do a sub 2:00 Half Marathon.

screenshot_2017-01-20-21-28-34

Where would you place yourself on the scale? Where would others place you?

Some of this is healthy: discontent breeds positive change. On the other hand, if I obsessed, (as I often do) about the science, nutrition, plans, pacing, getting the best out of my body in the time I have, that is unhealthy. So there is a tension between good discontent and contentment, and the question is – how to use discontent in a healthy way?

The answer is, I think, in how we choose to make those changes. Yes, I would like to be stronger than I am. Looking at my marathon training, which starts this week, helped me narrow the appropriate strength work. I need to go for functional strength. My core is useless. And I need to make a change that I can live with forever. There is no point in implementing a heavy weights program which I will only be able to utilise until week 12, would hate, and couldn’t actually fit into an already tight training schedule. Far better to take what I have and do it well and often throughout my training. The beauty of Freeletics seems to be that they are short, intense sessions. Highly achievable while your wife is watching Casualty, or after a run or bike commute. And they work. I’m still sore from Saturday’s session.

This morning I also changed my morning routine from:
coffee pot on hob, cereal in bowl, faff on facebook, pour coffee, to:
coffee pot on hob, cereal in bowl, plank, pour coffee.

Because a plank a day is doable. I don’t know whether I will do it at the weekends too. Probably not. Because I can see myself doing it five days a week, during a time I am not already using.

Likewise, instead of filling my eyes and kind with junk during my coffee I am reading at least one chapter of Scripture a day. Because one, although small, is a heck of a lot better than nothing.

I am content with my goals. I am not sure whether I will do another marathon after this – it really depends how race day goes. The training will be tough, particularly around weeks 1 through 16. But I am content with the content of the training program, which makes it a lot more manageable. That said, I am currently putting off my first pyramid treadmill session. Mean as you start to go on…

Workout your salvation

I often think one goal of any race is to make it to the start line having done the best you can to prepare yourself for however many miles are ahead of you. This takes months of preparation – my training for yesterday’s half marathon began 12 weeks ago!

But the half wasn’t the real goal, which is the Stirling Marathon (21st May). Only 17 weeks and 6 days to go! The half was really training for the 21st itself and to force myself to have a bigger base to work from than I did last time. So you could argue that by the time May 21st rolls around, I’ll have been preparing for it for nearly seven months!

Taking such a long view sounds ridiculous, but I think it is incredibly wise. It forces you to think about what steps you can take today to make that day in the future the best it can possibly be.

I think there should be in our Christian lives a very similar way of thinking. At the end of my life, I would like to be able to say that I have endured my race, I have kept the faith; I’d very much like to hear Jesus say “well done, good and faithful servant.” I’d like to do the best with what He’s given me.

Those months of training for a marathon can be likened to years of continuous training for daily life as a Christian. I gained a new appreciation of the phrase “work out your salvation” (Phillippians 2:12) yesterday during the sermon. Our minister gave three analogies, one of which I forget precisely (to do with sowing in a field): when you work out a maths sum you use the figures you have and try to get the outcome – the answer; when you work out physically, you take what you have and try to get a different outcome – stronger, faster.

He didn’t say any more than that, as the sermon had to cover more ground, but as a runner it makes a whole lot of sense. Very quickly, here’s how the analogy carries forward.

You should be doing different types of workout:

  • long, slow distance: in which you are taking the cardiovascular system and making it more efficient at pumping blood and oxygen round the body.
  • speed work (of whatever variety: fartlek, hill sprints, sprints), takes your lactate threshold and aims to increase it, so that you can run faster for longer.
  • strength work, where you take your muscles and put them under stress and let them heal stronger, which helps both speed and endurance. For instance, my core is terrible; so I know in the 17 weeks I have I need to do as much as I can to strengthen it, so that I’m able to keep proper form for longer and so avoid the calf cramps which plagued my last one!

Now, there are different things we can and should be doing to train us for the Christian life.

  • praying. Helps us to focus on God’s greatness, and therefore our folly, taking our sin and repenting so that he can remove it and replace it with a new desire for his will.
  • reading the bible. Takes whatever knowledge we have of God and deepens it: how can we know his will without reading the bible?
  • listening to sermons, reading devotionals and other books: as with the last point, can help us deepen our knowledge and love for Christ.
  • Meeting with other Christians, not just on Sunday. Helps us appreciate others more, and can help us love them deeper.

God gives salvation today for our sins of the past and today, and a new hope: that is the greatest gift. We must use it and do these things out of reverence for that. He has also given us the above resources. Let’s use ’em gladly!

As I stated, the training can take a long time, and results can be frustratingly slow. But they can come. Yesterday’s half was physically demanding. I was working on roughly 2.5/3 hours sleep,  felt sick multiple times, and went into it not thinking a PR would even be possible. My squelchy stomach meant I just had to adapt to using fewer food gels than planned – all I could do was continually plod as best I could. My legs weren’t really willing to speed up after a small surge at mile 6, but they were at least willing to keep going (apart from mile 11 and 12, in which I had two small walk breaks) and I was able to sprint finish by forcing my body to ignore my squelchy stomach. And I felt exhilarated at the end and justified by the work I put in, although I should have done much more!

Old PR: May (during the marathon, totally not meaning to PR) 2hr 24m 17s.
New PR: 2hr 17m 58s.

hm-pr-15th-jan

A remarkably consistently paced but Personal Record setting Half Marathon

 

Yep, I shaved 6 minutes and 17 seconds off. I did so mostly by giving myself a bigger base through, for example, commuting by bike more, doing the different types of workout, using a cross country 10k in November as a side goal. And yesterday, I was remarkably consistent with the splits. Not record breaking, but it made me realise: take the steps today, no matter what, and in a few months time or in many years, I may just creep under the 2hr mark – but much more importantly, hear those words “well done, good and faithful servant.”

Psychological preparedness

No runner wants to see those three letters against their name in a results page: DNF. Did Not Finish. Take a look at Paula Radcliffe’s grief – and there is no other word for it – as her body forces her to stop at mile 22 of the Athens Olympic Marathon. Every runner who has taken part in any event, be it their first 5k or Nth marathon, implicitly understands her anguish. It is as horrible to rewatch as it was to see it happen live.

Clearly the feeling is amplified for her, having been pitted as a favourite given her world records a year earlier. But the fear of failing can be huge, even for plodders like me.

This week I have wrapped my head around the DB12 half marathon at Strathclyde Country Park, which is tomorrow morning – at 8.30! It has taken me a week, I am psychologically prepared for a DNF.  Although I will do my best, if it becomes clear I am going to do myself an injury which may set me back weeks into my marathon training there will be little to no point in finishing. Ironically, accepting I may get a DNF will free me to do the best I can, and allow me to finish; if I pig-headedly refused a DNF I would probably not actually finish, as I would push myself too hard early on.

So why leave the house at ridiculous o’clock and drive for an hour on a Sunday morning to plod 13.1 – or maybe fewer – miles? Because, having accepted that I may not complete the run, I have thought about what the run means for me tomorrow, and evaluated my goals. Tomorrow’s run is not the be all and end all; the marathon isn’t but is the real goal behind tomorrow. So I have tweaked them a little:

  • Pre-marathon-training assessment. Difficult to do in training runs, so is better done in a race environment. So whether I finish or not – that will be where my fitness is at!
  • Keep fitter during the Christmas period. Although I don’t feel totally ready for tomorrow, my resting heart rate is bang on where it was pre-christmas (60 BPM) and my breathing is much the same. I also think I ate slightly less than last year…
  • Knock 13 minutes off my last half marathon. Possible, given some great training runs. But tomorrow won’t be the day. I have removed this goal.
  • Practice same strategy for the marathon: slow first half, medium middle, and push as hard as I can for the last bit.
  • Finish strong. My last training run was supposed to be a banger, but a 2 hour psychological booster became a 1 and a half hour physical and mental struggle. I did finish strong though.

In addition I have some tools to help:

  • My running cap, bought while in training for my first half marathon. A physical reminder that I can do it.

    mde

    Tools of the trade

  • A friend’s running belt. Reminder that friends are rooting for me, and the pink will cheer me – and probably others – up (Glaswegians are a friendly bunch).
  • Mantras, such as “you’re slacking” – after a friend’s son told me 13.1 miles is nothing given what ultramarathoners do; “no matter how high your mountain, never ever give up” – Dick Beardsley
  • A reason for every mile. Adapted from Tina Muir’s positivity bottles. These include (mile 1) to burn fat (has the additional benefit of keeping me at that slow pace); (mile 6) inspire others; (mile 10) bragging rights; (mile 13/13.1) finishing.

 


No matter what, I am prepared for the result – and the result will be good. If I finish, I have a well timed psychological boost reminding me I can do it, regardless of my time. If I finish well, that boost will be bigger. If I don’t finish, I’ll become more resilient for next time and be able to do next year’s better, and I’ll still have an accurate pointer as to my fitness. I am still nervous about tomorrow, but having thought it all through, I am now not so worried – and I’m actually looking forward to the experience. The lesson for you for your challenge – think about it, tweak what you can, enjoy as much as possible.

Expect some bragging on Monday.

Planning Ahead

It was the first day back at work today. I spent a fair whack of it writing in key dates into my diary. Boring, maybe, but it doesn’t take much for this dyslexic to get derailed. Writing these dates helps me get a handle of what’s happening when – I have discovered that writing it again in our main calendar really drills it into my head. I like to have a sense of what is happening when, and I sometimes get stressed when I don’t. Like the first time I went to a highly liturgical church service in Edinburgh as a lad. Not knowing the page numbers, and having to guess where we were and watch others for cues as to when to sit and to stand added unnecessary stress – the leader gave no direction, even minute.

That said, I don’t always marry my desire to be organised with actually being so. Sure, I use a diary well, when I use it. And I have posts mapped out, but I could do far better.

I once heard of a church minister who prepares his sermons five weeks in advance. That sounds ludicrous to some, and many in the room had a good chortle at the man’s expense. But I think it makes sense.

Out of 29 blogposts, most have been written on the day of publishing. Most of those have been in the morning. A couple, this one included, have been written with Tuesday watching over my shoulder, teasing me, laughing at my attitude and my failure to be better organised. When I have finished a post at the weekend and scheduled it to post automatically I feel so much more peaceful. It means the pressure is off, and I am not scrambling for topic, words, sentences that make sense and cramming it all together into the limited time I have.

I am impressed that only two have been written under such circumstances and that the majority have been done earlier.

Yet for the sake of peace, and clarity of thought, I shall from here on out endeavour to write earlier on, before Monday.

As well as peace, there is another advantage to being organised: You get to do things, like take part in competitions, which I aim to do more of this year. Looking ahead at this month I know I might be performing at the last ever Blind Poetics, and the Shore Poets‘ slam. If I had been aimless I wouldn’t have been able earmark them. Oh, and it would also mean I wouldn’t know about Tom Paxton’s upcoming tour. Yes, I have a ticket for the 27th. No, you aren’t having it. You should have been more organised.

Remember your destination.

Happy New Year, readers. I wonder what you have planned for this year, where you want to go physically or spiritually.

I discovered on Friday that the cliche ‘the journey is more important than the destination’ is largely bunk. The journey wouldn’t happen without a destination in mind. Obvious, maybe, but it was writ large to me on Friday. Having planned to cycle 25 miles,  I became worried about my post-Christmas fitness and that I wouldn’t be back in good time, so I decided  to cycle the three miles up to Craigie’s Farmshop and Cafe for some notebooking – the coffee, and views of rolling hills and the Firth of Forth make it perfect for contemplation – and the three miles back home.

james-the-river-almond-3

Bike at destination number 2 – the River Almond, Kirkliston

On my way, I felt better than I anticipated, even through the wind, and ended up extending my route by 4 miles. At Craigies I looked at the map and decided that on the way home I would reach the River Almond, instead of going straight home. Not a particularly beautiful spot, but pretty in its own way, and it added a few miles. My next stop after this: home.  I was ahead of schedule – so extended my route further,  via the Forth Rail Bridge. Total mileage for the day: 19.5 – only 5.5 short of my original aim! It may sound obvious, but without the destinations in mind I would not have gone out in the first place, and I would not have made the route longer. In some ways, the journey was really tough – my legs ached, i was dehydrated amd windswept, but the lure of the destinations kept me going.

I think there are parallels with this and many things we do.

When I started this blog last year, I set off with the journey rather than the destination in mind. I did not really think about topic etc (perhaps wrongly), as I didn’t anticipate so many people finding my words helpful, especially given that the blog is teething. I set off with the aim of having a journey, with no clear destination. Any writer will tell you to consider who you are writing for; some will say to write the first draft for yourself, and then subsequent drafts for your immediate readership (i.e, you). I find that I am primarily writing for myself (soz) – I write many more words than I eventually publish – but I  also contemplate what you most responded to by liking, commenting here or on social media or speaking to me in person!

I have been encouraged that so many people have thanked me for this little corner of the web. It makes me realise that these words have been helpful, and this is my aim. So I will continue to post once a week.

I am going through a heart change about blogging. Do I want to have more readers? Yes – what blogger doesn’t? Why? Selfish reasons. I agree that I shouldn’t have this desire for more readers. But these reasons stand side by side with my desire to be as helpful to as many people as possible. Yet there are better questions to ask: What topic(s) to write about (unless I keep this as a form primarily for me and you, I need to hone this down)? Should I be topical? Should I be personal? Are more devotional type posts better? What suits me? What is helpful? What can I contribute? What is my unique selling point? What is certain that one post a week is manageable for you and me both.

I started blogging as an experiment to keep me writing through all that life throws, and I am still playing with form – although getting tighter on the types of posts as I am discovering what people respond to. So I have roughly plotted the posts I will do in the first half of the year, in much the same way I plotted my route for Friday. Expect detailed discussions on depression as a person of faith in February, some topical posts around Lent and Easter; journey with me on my second marathon (May). I will probably change the route along the journey along the blog, but my destination will remain the same: to be as helpful to as many people as possible.

Whatever your goals are for this year, remember that the destination means a reason to keep going, regardless of the route you take.

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.