Who am I? Identity after diagnosis.

After a few quick questions, the doc looked up from his questionnaire and concluded with some finality, “Rachel, I think you are depressed.”

I was shocked and immediately defensive. I thought the NHS were just fobbing me off with their latest hobby horse – “Pass her a few pills and all will be well”.

Image by Cristiano Galbiati
Image by Cristiano Galbiati

However, I would be lying if I said it was the first time I had heard a doctor say this. For me, depression was a constant battle but this time was different. For the first time, he was recommending a course of anti-depressants.

“I must be really messed up,” I concluded, inwardly.

I walked home bewildered and crushed. I went to the GP because I was tired and achy; after some research on Google (which is never good!), I had diagnosed myself with an autoimmune disease. Truthfully, I think I would have been content with lupus rather than depression. Why? For many, mental illness = shame, weakness, taboo.

“I should not feel this way,” I argued to myself. “Christians are supposed to be happy, joyful people. We are saved.”

When I went to church that Sunday, I avoided eye contact, afraid that perceptive eyes would be able to sense, as the doctor had done, what was really going on inside. I felt as if a label was tattooed across my forehead: depressed. Depression shaped my actions and thoughts: almost overnight, I became “Rachel Hanna, depressed person.” I distanced myself from people who loved and knew me best, fearing judgment, or worse – pity. I questioned my worth, relationships and, ultimately, the purpose of my life. Who would notice if I was gone anyway? Did anyone really care? Was it really worth going on?

That was June, now it is September. I am still taking anti-depressants and probably will be for some time. But now I am ok with that – why? I realised that, though my brain might need extra help to be positive, basing my identity upon a diagnosis was a form of idolatry. I am first and foremost a child of God – that is who I am. It does not mean that the world is perfectly rosy all of a sudden. Sometimes it feels like a constant battle. I am learning to see myself as God sees me and trusting Him despite the uncertainties and disappointments of life. A few months ago, the last person I turned to was God. Surely, He would prefer if I gave up wallowing and painted on my best Sunday School smile. I couldn’t be more wrong.

He has taught me a lot about His grace through this process and with the help of the Holy Spirit, I will choose gratitude instead of despair, practicing love and forgiveness instead of bitterness, contentment instead of comparison. I am freed by Christ from the bonds of sin and death and though I have my bad days, I know that one day all will be well. Until then, I use the truth of his Word as a sword, to fight the ongoing battles in my mind. In Christ, I am born again to a living hope, a hope for today and all of my tomorrows. I have a Father who works all things for my good and for now, He is challenging me to just trust Him. I praise God that He has removed my guilt and shame, teaching me that my identity is rooted in Him and that He is enough for me.

I am increasingly aware that I am not the only one living with depression and that it comes in many forms, I am by no means an expert. If you are struggling, do not be ashamed – please speak to someone about what’s going on. We need to remove the stigma and taboo of mental illness and learn how to better support our friends and family who live with it on a daily basis.

Advent: Adoration

xmas3

    

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

     ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Luke 2:8-21 NRSV

Christmas is in danger of passing me by this year.

Studying for an MA sometimes makes you throw out the baby with the bathwater or, in this case, the baby with the manger.

For many reasons I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to really ponder this passage, along with Mary, and to share some thoughts on the theme of adoration.

Firstly, adoration, according to the OED, means ‘the action or an act of displaying profound reverence or respect; worship of God…’

Adoration is very much a doing word.

Adoration requires action and in this passage we see a variety of actions at different stages.

The shepherds’ first action is to respond in fear to the angels, even though they are sharing ‘good news of great joy’: the gospel message of Christ. Maybe the first ever public declaration of the gospel message explicitly proclaiming Jesus as the long awaited Messiah? And how do the shepherds choose to respond? They leave the sheep and run off to find out what this is about – they investigate the claims of the angels for themselves and respond in worship: glorifying and praising God. Thus, we see that from his first hours on earth, Jesus called people to come and follow him.

Our Shepherd called shepherds to adore him.

Though she had been carrying the child for 9 months, we get a glimpse of Mary’s adoration of her child in this small part of the unfolding story. Undoubtedly, she is tired and confused – she has given birth to the Son of God and yet, here he is lying in a feeding trough. Through the shepherds, God speaks into her heart in these moments:

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”

Mary chooses to not let these precious moments and messages pass her by. Rather, she ponders: reflects, meditates and wonders as the voice of God ministers to her weary heart:

Mary, do not be afraid.

Mary, be at peace. You have been shunned by society, but this child is good news for all people, including you. Keep trusting.

Mary, your child is the Messiah – the hoped for and long awaited one.

Mary, you may not understand, but I had planned his birth in this way and in this place.

Mary, give me the glory, for I have done this. Adore your child, the God the Son on earth, for he brings peace and hope to all who will trust in him. 

I have to admit, I feel a bit like the shepherds at times. The Christmas season comes and goes in a similar manner to being flash-mobbed by an angel choir.

Do you ever get that feeling?

I hope this year I take time to adore Christ like Mary did; to let the truths of Emmanuel take root in my heart; to ponder and consider what “God with us” really means for this world and for me.

Adoration may be a simple, childlike wonder. But I don’t want to lose it as I grow older. Christmas will always hold a great mystery:

God became one of us.

He lived among us.

He ate and drank.

He laughed and cried.

He healed the sick and comforted the broken hearted.

And then he died for our sins, bearing the wrath of God so we could be forgiven, and rose from the dead so that we can be restored to a right relationship with God.

Why, oh why? I often ask myself.

So that I would have the option of choosing the True Shepherd, the one who assures me that I shall not want, that he shall carry me and keep me from straying.

Like Mary, do not let the words of God wash over you this Christmas or this very day – treasure them and ponder them in your heart. The promises of God are the greatest gift to us on earth. His promises are our future hope and our inheritance through Jesus Christ. Cheesy perhaps, but it really is the best Christmas present to know we have a home with our Heavenly Father.

~

Editor’s Note: This is the final post in our four part Advent series. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Mary, Mary, Martha, Martha

I’m Mary and I’m Martha all at the same time.
I’m sitting at his feet and yet I’m dying to be recognised.
I am a picture of contentment and I am dissatisfied
Why is it easy to work but hard to rest sometimes?

Lament by Audrey Assad

mary and marthaThis comes from a song by an American Christian artist called Audrey Assad – do give it a listen and check her out. I don’t normally enjoy Christian easy-listening but this girl is different. Her songs are honest. They’re real.

I don’t know about you, but I can empathise with her words here. I don’t see in myself an either/or with Mary and Martha but a both/and. Yes, I enjoy spending time with God, being in his presence in the stillness – but sometimes I just need a bit of recognition. I justify myself – “After all God, I do a lot… Especially in comparison to them. I love you more and I really get you in a way they just don’t.” All this shows me is that I crave the love, the glory, the acceptance of others. I am anxious to please, yet anxious to appear fully at peace, content, alive.

It is true that in many churches much work is done by the “faithful few”, but does a cliché like this really build up the body of Christ? It’s reminiscent of that famous passage in 1 Corinthians 12 – nobody wants to be the big toe because, let’s face it, the brain seems much more vital and interesting. But maybe the “big toe” who we write off as being just a bit “socially awkward”, not particularly attractive and worthy to be hidden by a smelly sock, is actually the prayer warrior whose faithfulness is keeping our church walking straight. Maybe that person is the Mary who is taking time to listen and learn, to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Of course Marthas are necessary too.

Proactive doers don’t always seeking their own glory either. But sometimes they prefer distraction as it allows them to shy away from really engaging with God and with others. They are defined by their doing rather than just being and use busyness as a wall to hide behind . The thought process goes along a bit like this:

“Sorry, I’m too busy selflessly serving the tea and coffee to tell you about my week. God seems so distant and I feel so alone, but sure, if I keep up the front no one will know.”

I’m not saying one is better than the other, both come with pitfalls (Mary could be lazy and Martha could be crazy – humour me with the rhyme) and often, like Audrey, we feel like both at the same time.

What it all comes down to is motivation.

So ask yourself: Why am I serving? Is it to please others and to earn their favour? If it is, you will always feel underappreciated and undervalued; service will always be a burden rather than a joy. You will compare yourself with others and point fingers at those who appear to be “doing less” or strive to be equal with/superior to those who are doing more.

At this point, by the Spirit’s prompting, I hope you realise, as I often do, that when doing becomes a stage show rather than a way to make much of Christ and little of self, it is time to repent; to realise the joy of sitting at his feet again, of serving the tea and coffee without dying to be recognised or dying to hide behind the coffee bar.

Consider:

Are you known in your church solely for what you do or is it accompanied by a vibrant and infectious faith – whether quiet or loud?

Prayer, the Cinderella of the church?

In Why Revival Tarries, first published in 1959, the evangelist Leonard Ravenhill called the prayer meeting the “Cinderella of the church today.” I wonder how he would evaluate our prayerfulness in 2013. I could be wrong, but I suspect things have gotten worse. Generational apartheid in churches often means that youth and young adults avoid the prayer meeting, seeing it as a place for the elderly. Whilst they are pioneering a “cool” new style of praise and worship in the main church service, the quiet and crucial foundation of prayer is often maintained by a dying generation of intercessors and prayer warriors. People from whom we have so much to learn.

Why do we neglect it? Every week my church urges “Members – Don’t forget the prayer meeting”. I have yet to attend; I stand as guilty as the next. After a year of the encouragements and discouragements that came with coordinating prayer meetings at Queen’s Christian Union, I should know better. I knew the joys of having over fifty people coming along at 8am to pray together, the disappointment of periods when it seemed like an uphill battle to convince students that collective prayer mattered at all.

I often use busyness as the excuse for avoiding prayer time, as if it is an optional extra in my relationship with God and his church. Often the argument goes something like this:

prayer“Oh well. God is sovereign, so why pray?” I want to challenge this spirit in myself, and perhaps in you too, for the following reasons:

1. Jesus prayed

The Son of God, during his earthly ministry, took himself off to desolate places to pray (Mark 1:35-39), and this time often refocused his ministry (Mark 1:38). Also, before he went to the cross, Jesus spent extended time in prayer in Gethsemane (John 17) and often encouraged his disciples ‘always to pray and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). The God-man sought the face of God in prayer, recognised its centrality and acknowledged his dependence upon God. How much more do we need to seek his guidance, to actively and persistently invite him into the monumental and seemingly inconsequential decisions of each day?

2. The early church set an example of prayer

Though there is much emphasis upon the apostles’ teachings and preaching the gospel in the life of the early church, there are many references to communal prayer (Acts 2:42; 4:23; 6:4; 6:6; 12:5; 13:3; 14:23; 21:5). Prayer is a powerful catalyst upon the community of faith, in maintaining unity, retaining vision, commissioning, committing and increasing effectiveness by consistently submitting the work to God, acknowledging their need of his power and approval.

3. The Christian faith is built upon relationship 

God is our Father, he created us for relationship with him, so he wants to hear about our lives, our thoughts and struggles because he cares. Though many of us come from dysfunctional families and struggle to comprehend dependable, fatherly love, we must not allow it to distort our view of God.

Prayer is not about getting our words right or mindlessly rhyming off liturgy, but actively acknowledging our need of God in all areas of our lives. It involves trust, as we lay our concerns and praises before the hands that crafted stars. For me, a prayer as simple as “Good morning, God”, consciously invites him into my mundane, everyday routine from the moment my eyes open. When I do this, my perspective changes and my purposes change; I become motivated by his glory and aware of his prompting through the Spirit.

So, prayer does change things, primarily by changing us. The question is, how much do we desire change in our lives and in our churches? Perhaps we prefer battling on in stoic self-dependence. Praise God that we are saved by grace and not works, that a tally of prayer hours will not make Him love us any more than He does today. However, time on our knees will enhance our love for Him and make us more aware of how He wants to involve us in His mission of bringing His kingdom to earth. We begin to grasp the words of John the Baptist: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).

How could engagement in prayer change your relationship with God and your local church?