Abuse, Shame, and Jesus

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at an event hosted by Passion for Evangelism. For various reasons the actual event was private, but myself and Karen Soole, who spoke, have written up our talks in case you’re interested. Karen’s can be found here. Mine is below – it’s not a short read, but I hope you find it helpful.

(CW: abuse, rape, domestic violence)


Appalled but not surprised

In March 2018, American Pastor, John Piper responded to a question about the relationship between egalitarianism and #MeToo (and particularly a series of sexual-assault allegations against various high profile men). This quote formed part of his answer:

I believe fifty years of [egalitarian culture] is one of the seeds bearing very bad fruit, including all those sexual abuses you talked about in your question. There are others seeds in our culture, but this is one of the seeds.

‘Sex-abuse allegations and the egalitarian myth’, John Piper

Piper, along with many other people, was trying to explain the (seemingly) sudden rise in cases of rape, abuse and assault, and yet despite how it might appear, sexual abuse is not a new issue. It isn’t actually on the rise. It’s not a consequence of the sexual revolution or a liberal society or a post-Christian culture – it’s a consequence of the fall, and has been around for about as long.

The Old Testament reminds us that we shouldn’t be surprised by sexual abuse and violence. It features both laws against it, and stories recounting it.
A typical reaction that I have experienced when talking to some people about the topic of MeToo is surprise and incredulity. Not disbelief necessarily, but just total and utter horror, about the extent of the problem.
And yet the Bible tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised by it. And Christians more than anyone really: because our understanding of the world points out to us how utterly sinful we are.

Judges 19 provides a brutal example of the really awful things that humans do to one another.

In the story we meet an unnamed Levite, and his unnamed concubine. As they’re travelling through Israel they find themselves  in a city where some of the local man attempt to gang-rape the Levite. He ends up handing over the concubine to the mob, who rape and abuse her throughout the night, before dumping her on the doorstep and leaving her to die. His response is to dismember her body into twelve pieces and send those pieces across Israel so that everyone will know what has happened..
And the chapter ends with this statement:

“And all who saw it said, ‘Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.”

The book of Judges paints a picture of a society where God’s people are living without reference to him and his law. In it we see increasing levels of corruption and violence, culminating in this story of the gang-rape and murder of an unnamed woman. It’s an appalling story, but it’s not a surprising one in that context. And the same holds true today.

The Christian story makes most sense of why it is that we long for things like justice. It gives us reasons for looking at the stories shared in the MeToo movement and being outraged and appalled and grief-stricken and all those other emotions that we feel in response. But it also makes sense of why those stories happen. Because we are sinful people living in a world of sinful people and our rejection of God and his design causes us to do terrible, terrible things.

We’re liable to do terrible things with our shame

Victim/survivors of sexual abuse and violence have often been significantly formed by their experiences, and the challenge of speaking about what they have lived through is often exacerbated by feelings of shame.

We can often think of guilt and shame as the same thing, but they’re not. Guilt is about our behaviour, shame is about our person. Whilst we might feel guilty because of something we did, we often feel ashamed about who we are. Guilt says ‘I did this bad thing’, shame says ‘I am bad’. And significantly the two aren’t always tied together. I might feel shame because of guilt, but I can also feel shame because of someone else’s guilt. That is particularly the case in issues of sexual abuse.

There are all sorts of reasons for that, but I’d like to consider one in particular, specifically our culture’s view of sex:

Theologically, sex is significant, and Christians have good reasons to have such high ideals for it. However, some of the language that we use about sex, and in particular, that we use to describe female virginity has had some really negative consequences. Sadly that’s particularly true in Christian culture.

The idea of being damaged goods. Language about having virginity taken away, or being something that we have ‘lost’.
All of this has a really problematic impact on people who have been sexually abused or assaulted.

For many victim/survivors, this cultural perspective warps and distorts their experiences and causes them to believe terrible things about themselves:

‘I’m already ruined. I’m damaged goods, and so I don’t deserve good things. I’m damaged goods and so no-one will want me. I’m damaged goods and so people should be able to treat me however they want.’

And this can lead victim/survivors to respond in a variety of damaging ways.

Sometimes they may bury it deep, not talk about it, not acknowledge it and instead to dissociate from it. As if the whole thing has happened to someone else, a different, unconnected them.

Sometimes it might manifest in self-harming behaviour. Partly wanting their physical body to bear some of the scars that their heart and mind are already experiencing. Partly wanting to have a measure of control over the pain that they’re already feeling.

Sometimes it leads them to engage in ‘risky behaviour’, not caring what happens to them because ‘the damage has already been done’.

Sometimes it leads them to put up with violence and abuse at the hands of other men because they don’t feel that they deserve anything better.

These, and many other, sorts of responses to sexual assault are not uncommon and we see a few examples displayed in scripture as well:

In 2 Samuel 13 we meet Tamar – a daughter of King David, who is raped by her half-brother, Amnon. Of all of the stories in scripture that feature rape and sexual assault, this is the only one where we hear the victim speak, and what she says is devastating. As she tries to stop Amnon from raping her she pleads with him and asks – ‘Where could I get rid of my disgrace?’ Or in the words of the ESV – ‘Where could I carry my shame?’

Tamar knows enough about her society to know that if Amnon rapes her then she will be put to shame. The perceptions of those around them, and her own understanding as a product of that society, is that when Amnon rapes her, she will bear shame and disgrace because of it.
He does rape her, and then immediately has her thrown out on the streets. Perhaps she might have done what many women do: bury it down deep, creep home, wash him off her and try and pretend that it hasn’t happened. But for whatever reason Tamar doesn’t do that.

Instead she goes public – the 10th Century BC equivalent of saying ‘Me Too’.
She tears her clothes – clothes that signified her status as a virgin daughter of the king. She puts ashes on her head – an act of mourning, grief over the death of her future hopes and life. And then she takes shelter in the household of another brother, Absalom, where she lives as ‘a desolate woman’.

Tamar, and the society around her, held on to this picture of shame at what had been done to her. The action of Amnon brought shame on Tamar, like a weight around her neck that she would be forced to wear for the rest of her life.

In John 4 we meet a different woman, one without a name, who’s known to us as ‘the Samaritan woman’.

This woman is almost the epitome of the term ‘damaged goods’.

Maybe you’ve never thought of her as being a victim of abuse, but it’s almost certain that she was. What we learn about her from these verses in John isn’t a lot, but we do know that she has been married five times and is now living with a sixth man who isn’t her husband.

We tend to throw our own culture and experience on this story and see her as a woman who is permanently dissatisfied. Moving from man and to man looking for ‘the one’, being disappointed, dumping him and moving on to the next. And yet, in the culture that this encounter occurred, that is not a reasonable reading of the situation at all.

Women in this culture did not have that sort of freedom or agency in marriage. She hadn’t dumped five men. Much more likely she had been dumped, and probably treated pretty terribly, and perhaps violently along the way.

I’m not saying that she was an innocent victim. She is a sinner (like all of us). But at least in part we need to recognise that her shame about what happened to her causes her to continue in that way of living. She moves in with a man who is not her husband, out of a probable belief of both herself, and the society around her, that she deserves nothing better.

The very wonderful and beautiful news of the gospel is that this doesn’t need to be the end of the story for her, or for Tamar, or any other woman or man who can say ‘Me too’.

Tamar’s question to Amnon was – where will I go to be rid of my disgrace?

It was a rhetorical question, because for her there was no answer. There was nowhere for her to go. The disgrace and shame stayed with her for the rest of her life.

For us there’s a different answer to the question. And that answer is Jesus.

Jesus is one who understands what it is to be disgraced and shamed by something that was not his fault. He also knows firsthand what it is to be sexually assaulted. He was humiliated and beaten, stripped naked and held up to public shame. He took all guilt and shame on his shoulders: the guilt and shame that we deserve, and the guilt and shame that we don’t deserve. He took it on his shoulders, carried it to the cross, and it died with him. And while he rose from the dead, the guilt and shame stayed there.

We are liable to do terrible things with our shame, but thankfully we have a Saviour who is able to take that shame from us, and offer us real hope, justice, comfort and healing.


On sexual abuse and ‘complementarian’ myths

A response to John Piper’s podcast/article: ‘Sex-abuse allegations and the Egalitarian Myth’

How do you disagree with someone well? 

This is a puzzle, isn’t it? Today I happened across an article from the Desiring God, ‘Ask Pastor John’ section. To be quite honest, reading it left me feeling pretty cross, and I’ve got some opinions, which I’m happy to share with you. 

But, it’s helpful to say this first. 

I do disagree with John Piper on this subject. In fact I disagree with him on most of his views on what he believes the Bible teaches on the roles of men and women. However, because of Jesus, there are many more, much more important things that we hold in common. John Piper is my brother in the Lord, and so I’m hoping and praying that whilst I say what I’m about to say, I’m able to do so in a way that doesn’t undermine that. 

If you think I haven’t done that well, please let me know.


So. Here’s the background:

In November, Piper wrote an article entitled, ‘Do men owe women a special kind of care?’. Today, as a follow-up to that, and in light of the recent media attention on the topic of sexual violence and harassment of women, he has produced a podcast/article answer: ‘Sex-abuse allegations and the Egalitarian Myth’

What follows is a (hopefully fair) summary of Piper’s argument, and some reasons why I think he’s wrong.

The second article is, as I mentioned, part of the ‘Ask Pastor John’ section of the Desiring God website, where he, unsurprisingly, answers questions that have been addressed to him. The question of today, was less of a question and more of an invitation for him to comment on the various sex-abuse scandals that have hit the headlines in the last few weeks and months (Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey all get mentioned, amongst others).

Here’s a quote:

“It seems like what makes these stories especially tragic, Pastor John, is not merely that these are powerful men who took advantage of less-powerful women. It’s especially tragic because, as men, they are called by God to demonstrate sacrificial care for women beyond what women are called to offer men.” (emphasis mine)

It’s this section of the question, and Piper’s response, that first got my left eye twitching (a sure sign of approaching rage). Let’s call it ‘objection one’.

I am a complementarian, although I’m increasingly disinclined to use the term because of the baggage that seems to go along with the word, as well as the fact that it is so broad a term, with such a wide-range of people claiming it, that it has become somewhat meaningless. If you’re unfamiliar with the terminology, allow me to explain.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Complementarianism is a theological view held by some in Christianity …that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere… For some Christians whose complementarian view is biblically-prescribed, these separate roles preclude women from specific functions of ministry within the community. Though women may be precluded from certain roles and ministries they are held to be equal in moral value and of equal status. The phrase used to describe this is ‘Ontologically equal, Functionally different’.

I would offer you a dictionary definition if I could, but the Oxford Dictionary doesn’t acknowledge it as being a real word. Make of that what you will.

Equal but different is key for me. Equal in status, moral value, cognitive ability, but different in function and role. I do think this is important. I think the difference is good, and I think it has implications for all sorts of things that are important, but I don’t think difference means either better or worse, and my frustration with Piper’s version of complementarianism is that he, I think unintentionally, manages to make being female inferior in a whole bunch of different ways.

In the original article Piper argued against any sense of a mutuality when it comes to respect and honour between men and women:

“God requires more of men in relation to women than he does women in relation to men. God requires that men feel a peculiar responsibility for protecting and caring for women.”

More, peculiar, beyond – it turns it into an unnecessary competition – can it not be enough to say we are to honour, respect and care for one another? Perhaps that might look different depending on whether we are men or women, but I’m not totally convinced that it does. Piper uses some verses from Ephesians 5 as his evidence, and yet those verses are speaking particularly to married people. Let’s not forget the verse that comes immediately before:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

That’s the ultimate call, surely? For all of us to respect, honour and submit to one another, regardless of who we are – because we’re all one in Christ. Paul then goes on to work out what that particularly looks like in a marriage, because of the uniqueness of finite, human marriage being designed to demonstrate something of the eternal, divine marriage between Christ and the Church.

I think we get ourselves in all sorts of pickles when we try to make out like these verses are primarily about human relationships, rather than about the way we as the Church relate to the Christ. And I think we get in even more of a pickle when we try to apply instructions about marriage to outside of that context.

Here’s what Piper has to say:

There is nothing like the leadership of Jesus and protection of Jesus and provision and cherishing and nourishing of Jesus that are laid on the man as a man — not because he’s more competent, but because he’s a man.

And yet, in the context of Ephesians, it’s not the ‘man’ who this burden of being like Christ is laid. It’s the husband. And those two things are not interchangeable.

A husband and wife are called on to relate to one another in a particular way, in order to demonstrate something of the way that church and the Lord Jesus relate to one another.  A husband and wife. Not all men and all women.

Piper goes on to argue:

This special burden put on man — this special responsibility toward women for honor and care and protection — does not evaporate when he walks out the door of his home. It’s not as though it were a matter of geography or a matter of marriage alone. Manhood does not cease to be manhood outside the home.

And yet, if those verses that he’s using are related particularly to a husband’s responsibility towards his wife, then it’s not a case of manhood, so much as it a case of husbandhood.

This fictional man is not my husband. He is not required to love me as he loves his wife. And I am not called to submit to him as a husband. To do so would be inappropriate.

How are we to relate to one another? The same way that we relate to any other Christian brother, or sister – submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

To try and read instructions to husbands and wives and apply them beyond that is to attempt to be more biblical than the Bible, and ends up with you writing articles forbidding women from becoming police officers.

Piper moves on to use a wee bit of 1 Peter to continue his argument:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honour to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life.

Note that Piper does acknowledge that in some ways women are stronger than men, whilst in other ways men are stronger than men. So the question we have to ask is, what is Peter talking about when he calls wives the ‘weaker partner’ or ‘vessel’? If it’s merely about physical strength, then what about a marriage where the woman happens to be physically stronger than her husband? Do the verses no longer apply?

I’d argue not. I think when Peter talks about the wife being the weaker partner he is referring instead to the cultural and societal situation of the time, which very much placed women as weaker than men and awarded them very few political or legal rights. In that context, Christian men are being told to behave differently, to treat their wives not as chattel or inferior beings, but as equal humans, with the dignity that comes from being made in the image of good God, and of being made a new creature in Christ.

Whilst some things have changed in the last couple of thousand years, there is still a problem in many cultures and societies across the world, which means that women are still weaker. In this society women are free to vote, to hold political office, to own property, to have rights to their own children, to consent to marriage, to travel out of the country alone, to have an education, and to give evidence in a court of law (some rights that have been denied to women previously in Britain, and some which are still being denied to women around the world today).

And yet, women in this society are still subjected to harassment and violence at work, at home, at university, on public transport, on the internet, and just walking down the street. And, news flash, this is not a modern phenomenon.

And this (let’s call it objection 2) is where Piper’s recent article really set me off, because he blamed the recent media furore over Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, etc, on the way that egalitarianism has impacted society.


Here’s the thing. Sexual abuse and harassment of women is not something that was invented in the last 50 years. It has been going on for a really long time. If you’d like some ancient evidence of women being abused by powerful men then I can recommend a few texts, you may know them as Genesis 34, Judges 19, 2 Samuel 11, and 2 Samuel 13.

In the last six months or so sexual violence, abuse and harassment has come to the forefront of many conversations in the media. The #metoo movement has been part of that shift in attention, as well as the fact that ‘celebrities’ have been caught up in the scandals (as victims as well as perpetrators). Aside from the obvious disgust in reading the myriad stories that have been shared, there have been two other things that have set off my feminist fury:

  1. The ridiculous notion that this is a new thing, or that women have been silent on the issue up until now.

Here are a few tweets that appeared in the aftermath of some of the #metoo publicity towards the end of last year.


Note the disgust, but also the surprise. And the response of a women to the original tweet essentially saying: we’ve been saying this for years, how come you weren’t listening?metoo3

A couple of years ago, when the Everyday Sexism project started I remember being simultaneously furious and relieved, as I read through tweet after tweet of horror stories. These were not surprising stories, these were things that I had experienced too, and finally having so many people share their own stories was liberating. And to be able to show a Twitter feed to male friends and colleagues and give them a glimpse of the scope of the problem was exceedingly helpful. One story might not seem like a big deal. Hundreds of stories demonstrate something of the extent of the problem.

The idea that this is a new or modern issue is laughable. And if there’s any truth at all to it, it’s this: perhaps there are certain spheres of society where women weren’t being harassed 100 or 200 years ago, but only because there weren’t any women present in those spheres to be harassed.

If the solution to keeping women safe is to lock them away, rather than demanding that the perpetrators stop being sexual predators then we have a problem.

2. The even more ridiculous notion that this has been caused by the sexual revolution and/or egalitarianism.

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 12.09.30

The idea that rape doesn’t exist within marriage, or that it didn’t exist 60 years ago, is nonsensical. Again, allow me to refer you to the Old Testament.

Rape, sexual violence, sexual abuse, harassment of women, and objecting to the presence of women in the public sphere are not new inventions. They are not a result of the sexual revolution. And they are not caused by a theological viewpoint that is arguing for the equality of men and women.

I am not an egalitarian, and I have reasons for that. But, I will not put up with rhetoric that wants to lay the blame for the mistreatment of women at their feet. It’s just not true.

Let’s let lay the blame where it belongs: sinful, denial of the truth of the fact that women, as well as men were made in the image of a good God, who gives dignity and value to all people, regardless of the body parts that they’re equipped with or the chromosomes they possess.

In summary: not having it.


On New Year


I really don’t like New Year’s Eve; the reasons are complicated.

Partly it’s the arbitrary nature of the whole thing. For some unknown-to-me reason, we’ve decided that December is the last month of the year and January is the first. Why? Apparently, during the middle-ages in Western Europe, New Year was variously celebrated at the beginning and end of March, the beginning and end of September, and on the moveable feast of Easter. All of which goes to show that it really could be any day we fancy. In the words of the wise-beyond-her-years, Brigitta Von Trapp: “It doesn’t really mean anything.”

A change of one year to another, from one month to another, from one day to another, from one hour to another, from one minute to another, from one second to another is simply that. And yet, the clock changes from 23:59 to 00:00, and the world goes bananas. And I just don’t quite get it.


But, partly it’s that I do really get it. Despite thinking it’s stupid, I feel the significance of that moment, and all that it implies.

It’s about looking back on the year that has gone and evaluating, critiquing and scoring it. Was it a good year? Were you successful? Did you achieve all that you wanted? Did you tick off any goals? Reach any milestones? Were you kind? Were you happy? Were you loved?

And it’s about looking forward to the year that is coming, trying to work out whether it will be any better, but having to deal with the fact that you don’t know and you can’t know. Anything might happen this year. Good stuff. Bad stuff. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Time is ticking on, second by second, minute by minute, and we’re all just swept along with it.

When I was little I used to be afraid of a number of different things, many of them in category of ‘transportation’. Boats, fast cars on bumpy roads, and rollercoaster rides were top of the list. I would be terrified and demand that I wanted to get off, even when that really wasn’t a reasonable possibility. On learning that the world that we are existing on is also moving and spinning, I had to try not to think about those facts too hard, in case that caused me to freak out and demand that earth also stop and let me off.

I’m not worried about the movement of the world anymore. I don’t think.

But there is something terrifying about the movement of time. The fact that it just ticks on and sweeps us with us. We can’t stop it. We can’t opt out. Time is moving on and it is taking us with it, whether we like it or not.

And yet, this year I’m trying to embrace that unknownness. I don’t love it, but I can bear with it because of knowing the one who does know.

The lactose-intolerance-inducing cheesy statement is, nevertheless, true: I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.

My favourite song of this Christmas has been from Kate Rusby’s new album, Angels and Men: Let The Bells Ring

The picture she paints is a beautiful one. Standing on the seashore watching the sun rise on New Year’s Day, and taking the chance to send the old year away and welcome in a new one.

The chorus goes like this:

Let the bells ring, here my arms are open wide // Send the old year out on the rolling tide // Let the sun rise, there is nothing now I fear // Let the sun rise on a happy new year.

The beauty of the sun rising is something pretty special. Despite the fact that it happens every day, it’s a sight that causes us to stop and look. Sunsets can stun us into silence, or shake us into speech. How is it that something so ordinary can also be so significant?

Because we live in a world created by a God who loves us and uses the physical things of this world (like a giant balls of gas, and orbits and revolutions and other fun astrophysics things) to teach us and remind us of who he is and what he’s like. And when we see the sun appear to rise every day, it reminds us of the wonder of Christ rising from the dead and bringing light and life to the world.

So sayeth the wise Jonathan Edwards (as inspired by Malachi 4 and Luke 1):

Christ rising from the grave with joy and glory, was like the sun rising after a long night of darkness, appearing in joyful light to enlighten the world. … Now the gospel-sun is risen in his glory, and with healing in his wings, that those who fear God s name, may go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.”

Jonathan Edwards, Works, Vol.1, p586

What a beautiful true thing.

In summary: embracing unknownness and looking for the sunrise.


On Scripture Stories | An Introduction

I may or may not have mentioned that I’m currently working my way through a part-time MA in Theology. As part of that, during the previous academic year I took a module called, Biblical Literacy in a Media Culture, thinking about all sorts of things, including the challenges of working/speaking/living in a post-Christian culture. The issue with this culture is that it has and is shaped by biblical things – art, music, architecture, literature, history, etc, are influenced by biblical stories and ideas, and yet vast swathes of the population are not actually biblically literate enough to make sense of them.

As part of the module, I worked on a wee project thinking about conversational approaches to reading the bible, and in particular, producing a Bible Overview series that I could use in 1-2-1 bible studies with students.

For my own amusement and edification (and perhaps that of you, my dear readers) I thought I’d convert some of that work into a few blog posts to share over the next few days/weeks. As always, do let me know what you think.

One of the things that I have found to be most exciting and encouraging and persuasive as I have stumbled my way through the last 17 years of faith has been the way that I have increasingly been able to see the clarity and beauty and consistency of the story of scripture.

I’ve always loved a story. As a child I devoured books and filled pages and pages of notebooks with my own stories. I had grown up hearing Bible stories in church but when I became a Christian I forgot about the stories and found myself thinking of the Bible in terms of just an endless supply of isolated verses and sayings that were chucked out in times of trouble: Have a worry? Here’s a verse to tell you not – why don’t we pop it on a poster with a picture of a kitten and a sunset and put it on your bedroom wall.

Of course that is not how the Bible works – which is a matter of great relief, since a book full of motivational poster quotes is not exactly going to be the most invigorating read in the world, is it? And after a while I did get back into the idea of reading the stories and understanding something of what it meant to read verses in context, and then I went away to university to study theology, and learnt a whole bunch of new and terrible ways to divide the Bible up.

For the first couple of years of my first degree I was swept up in study of form criticism and source criticism, and JEDP, and the Jesus Seminar, and Schleiermacher, and Wellhausen, and the rest of the gang. Names and phrases that strike terror into the heart of theology undergraduates everywhere.

Without wanting to be overly harsh – I did learn many great, and helpful things – so many of these methods and authors seemed frustratingly inclined towards wanting to dissect and reorder the text. So, it came as a great moment of joy in my Biblical Studies adventure when I was introduced to canonical criticism (popularised by Brevard Childs). To utterly simplify: canonical criticism is concerned with reading and interpreting the bible in its finished form (a.k.a. the canon).

And this is where I land. I think, not surprisingly, that there is a reason that the Bible is given to us in the order that it is. I appreciate that there are human authors and editors involved, but I also believe in a God who has the power, ability, capacity, concern to make that happen. And with that in mind, it makes sense to me then to actually read the Bible in that order. To behave and respond to verses as part of chapters, and chapters as part of books, and books as part of one, great, sweeping story about God, and the world.

One of my greatest joys in my work is to have the opportunity to introduce students to that great Story, and in doing so, to help them to meet and know its Author.

Come back soon to read about the hows and whys of the Bible overview.

In summary: stories and that.


On Stories

Last week was all about stories.


Durham CU ran a week of events with the theme of stories.

As well as public events (apologetic talks and discussions, interviews with a host of different people to discover their stories, and talks from John’s Gospel on ‘lives changed by Jesus’) the CU ran a really excellent social media campaign, to engage with this idea of story.


It’s been interesting to see how positive the response has been. People seemed to really like the idea, and have appreciated the question that has been doing the rounds of the university over the last few weeks:

What’s your story?


I found this quote from Alasdair MacIntyre, which goes some way to explain what’s going on:

Man is essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?
Alasdair MacIntyre | After Virtue

The fact is that the question, “What’s your story?” has become another way of asking, “Who are you?”
Stories are the way that we engage with the world, the way that we understand who we are, where we have come from, and why we think what we think.


And of course, story is the way that God speaks to us.

“Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane.”
J.R.R. Tolkien | Letters, 100–101

We’re story people. The fact that ‘What’s your story?’ is a question that is being asked is a good thing. It enables us to legitimately point people to the Author of Reality, the one who has written the Story that we’ve found ourselves in. A story that is true and beautiful at the same time.

“For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight.”
C.S. Lewis | Myth became fact

In summary: telling stories

Oh, and they also made an amazing video.


On mission in a ‘done to’ culture

As you may know, I’m currently working on an MA in Theology at Durham. One of the classes I’m taking is all about ‘Missional Leadership in the North East’ and I’ve recently written a blog post for it.

If you fancy reading it, you’ll find it by following this link.

In summary: theologising.


On Depression and the ‘Professional Christian’ (or feeling disqualified)

Mental health (or lack thereof) is a troublesome bundle of confusion sometimes.

I am thoroughly convinced of the fact that depression is a medical problem, and I am delighted that clever wizards have made a drug that has (by and large) made me better.

I think that this comic by Robot Hugs is very true and useful and right:

And yet, it’s hard to get away from the fact that by the very nature of the mental aspect of this illness, there is something more than just chemical imbalance at work.

We’re mysterious beings, and we can’t separate emotions and brain chemicals into neat little boxes, and that has made things a wee bit complicated as I’ve tried to work out how depression and Christian faith mix.

Being a full-time professional Christian with depression has not been easy.

Firstly, there is something quite numbing about this chemical imbalance – there has been sadness at times, and there has been crippling anxiety at others, but there have also been days of total, apathetic, nothingness, where all I wanted to do was crawl back into bed and disappear from the world. At times like that, it’s hard to pray and sing and care at all, let alone preach the gospel to anyone else, and I found that pretty hard to deal with. I love my job a lot, and to suddenly find myself unable and frankly, unwilling, to get up and go to work was quite disorientating, and a little bit frightening.

Secondly, there is a perception that in order to be a professional Christian, one needs to be ‘sorted’. I know that isn’t true, and has never been true, particularly in my own experience. I have consistently been quite a far way off sorted throughout my life as a Christian, and that didn’t change once I started getting paid for doing ministry work. And yet, with this new malady came new doubts: could I and should I still be doing this job?

Happily, UCCF (them what pay me), were and are incredibly kind and patient and helpful, plus, the drugs started working and the symptoms eased and I stopped waking up every morning with a crushing sense of dread, and started to love my job again.

But also, during the last year I have been working my way through 2 Corinthians with a number of different people, and have seen a couple of things that have been incredibly helpful during this season of darkness.

Firstly, one of the markers of Christian life, and Christian leadership, is suffering. In 2 Corinthians Paul explains that he has been getting it in the neck from various people (the ‘super-apostles’), who are basically saying that the fact that he’s been having a hard time (beatings, imprisonment, riots, sleepless nights, hunger, etc) is because he’s not really an apostle, and so he’s not being blessed by God. Paul spends most of the letter explaining that the Super-Apostles are morons, and that everything they’re teaching is total & utter bollocks (admittedly he doesn’t use those exact words…), and that in fact, suffering is part of what it means to be a Christian leader:

We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

2 Corinthians 4:7-12

Being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down are pretty awful, but they don’t disqualify you from telling people about Jesus. He was afflicted and crushed, perplexed and driven to despair, persecuted and forsaken, struck down and destroyed for our sake, and in our suffering and persevering, we’re able to speak about him in a different way.

The gospel is a treasure beyond price. The fact that it’s being spread by such a rubbish and broken jar of clay like me, shows how glorious it really is.

Secondly, there’s this:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 

Aside from the overwhelming desire to buy Paul a thesaurus, reading these verses is and has been an immense joy and, surprise, surprise, comfort to me over the years.

God comforts us in our suffering – joyous news, for sure. But also, he uses our sufferings, and the comfort we have experienced through them, to bring comfort to others.

In the utter crapness of this serotonin-shortage season, the knowledge that God is both comforting me, but also using me is, surprisingly enough, immensely comforting to me.

I want the hard things in life to have been worth something. I want to be able to see good come from them. I want to be useful and helpful, and it is such a comfort to know that even when things look and feel like failure, God is at work and using them.

And perhaps, not ‘even when’, but ‘because’.

It turns out that being a chipped and dirty jar of clay is actually a handy thing, because it shows the beauty and perfectness of the gospel in all its brilliance.

In summary: not crushed.


On serotonin shortages (or resolutely not using the D-word)

I’ll be honest and say that one of my greatest irritations with this whole depression malarkey has been the fact that it is called depression at all. It’s just such a crap word. Having to repeatedly use that word to explain what’s wrong with me feels so feeble.

Oh, you’re depressed are you? Poor you. Well, nevermind dear. Pull yourself together, and I’m sure it’ll pass.

No one, I hasten to add, has actually been so crass or uncouth as to say this to me. This is simply my patronising internal monologue from time to time.

The problem is that the word is too weak to communicate the utter crapness of what has actually been going on.

Apparently the wizards (you may know them as ‘scientists’) don’t really know what causes depression, but the common assumption is that it’s all to do with a shortage of serotonin in the brain, and the happy pills, also known as SSRIs, are believed to increase the extracellular level of the neurotransmitter serotonin by limiting its reabsorption into the presynaptic cell, increasing the level of serotonin in the synaptic cleft available to bind to the postsynaptic receptor.*

Or, probably, by magic.

I’m inclined to believe this particular theory, mostly due to the fact that the drugs surely do work.

With that in mind, I may start referring to my illness as chronic serotonin shortage, on the off-chance that I’ll get rid of that unpleasant internal monologue.

In the meantime I have been trying my hardest to ignore all of my natural cringing inclinations, and so telling people what’s wrong, in an attempt to do my little bit towards undoing some of the terrible taboo of talking about mental-health-type things. In doing so I’ve been staggered by the number of people who have shared similar struggles – particularly amongst the student-types, with whom I spend a considerable amount of my time. The official figures of those struggling with a mental health issue in the UK is 1 in 4, and I reckon I might believe that now.

How terribly common.

More wise thoughts coming soon, including something about depression and being a ‘professional Christian’.


In summary: serotonin-deficient

* So sayeth Wikipedia


On happy pills & the D-word

When I stopped blogging 18 months ago there were a couple of reasons for it.
The first, was that after 365 days of posts, I was rather sick of my own ‘voice’.
The second, and honestly, the main reason was that I had just been diagnosed with depression. It felt like that was the only thing that was really going on in my mind at the time, and I just wasn’t ready or able to write about it, but I had nothing else to write either, so the blog had a holiday.

18 months later and I’m back. I’m still not sure I’m actually ready to write about it, but I’ll give it a bash anyways. Bear with me, won’t you?


Working out the whys of this whole thing is as yet an unsolved mystery. I’ve been depressed before and I’ve been anxious before, but it has always, always been for a reason before. This time it just came out of nowhere.

December 2013 arrived and I was feeling a bit run-down, but after autumn term with its freshers, CU weekends, events’ weeks, carol services, as well as a couple of other fairly large spanners that were thrown in the works of work, that wasn’t a massive surprise. But then a couple of days before my Christmas holiday started, while sitting in the Sage concert hall, listening to Kate Rusby and her band, I had an anxiety attack.
If you’re not familiar with that particular treasure of human experience, then I’m glad for you. It’s an odd thing – breathing is hard, your heart starts racing, pins and needles, or something like it attacks your hands and feet, you feel hot and cold, all at once, and all you want to do is run, except that you’re in the middle of a row of people, listening to some lovely music, and since there’s nothing to cause the feeling, there’s also nothing to run from, so you just sit there and wait for it to pass (and then have a big glass of wine during the interval, to take the edge off).

By the time I made it back to my mum and dad’s for Christmas I was feeling terrible, but had convinced myself that it was probably a virus, and so spent most of the holidays in bed, googling my various symptoms and convincing myself that I had either glandular fever or MS (and steadfastly ignoring the ‘depression’ diagnosis that was popping up at every turn).
Eventually I made it to my GP, had some blood tests done and got signed off work, but of course the bloods came back clear, and after a bit of prodding from various members of my family, and a few baffling bouts of uncontrollable weeping, I went back to the doctors and got a diagnosis (the D-word) and a prescription for a very wonderful drug, called Citalopram.

Happy pills

These tiny white pills are magical. It wasn’t an immediate fix, for sure. It took 8 weeks and an increase in dosage before I started to feel somewhat normal again, but eventually they did kick in, and all in all, I’m doing grand.

It has been an odd experience. Baffling, frustrating, frightening, and miserable at times; but also interesting, and challenging, and I suspect, perhaps a wee bit good for me.
More on all of that in future posts, I reckon, but for now, let’s leave it there.

In summary: medicated.


On permanent ink

In the first few posts of this new site I thought I might fill you in on a few of the things that are new in the last eighteen months.

First up, a new tattoo.

I got my first tattoo when I was 20 years old, on somewhat of a broken-heart-induced whim, and much to the consternation of my friends, who were rather worried that I’d come to regret it.
Happily, I haven’t, and practically ten years to the day, I got tattoo number 2.

Tattoo number 1 was a very simple butterfly. 12 lines, no colour, and for the absolute bargain price of £10. I very much doubt that you could get even a prison tattoo for those kind of prices these days, and so the latest one was a bit pricier, and a bit more detailed. And, with ten years to ruminate on it, a wee bit more thought through.


It’s on my right inside-wrist, and as you can see from the picture, consists of two lilies, the word ‘Therefore…’, and a bible reference (Hosea 2:14). This is my absolute favourite verse in the bible (whether one is allowed to have favourite verses or not is of little importance to me), because of the ‘therefore’ that kicks it off.

The verse in its entirety is this:

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”

Odd favourite verse? Maybe, but allow me to explain myself. The verse is part of a book called Hosea, about a prophet (called Hosea) who is commanded by God to marry a prostitute, Gomer. The reason for that odd instruction is that God wants to show his people, Israel, how they are treating him. God describes himself as a husband, and Israel as his wife, and chapter 2 of the book describes in graphic detail exactly how she has behaved: he has given her everything she could ever want or need, and she has responded by whoring herself out to other gods.
She is like a wife who takes the wedding ring her husband has given her, gives it to another man, and then becomes a prosititute, allowing the man to pay her using that very same ring. It’s a terrible story, which becomes even worse as one reads it and comes to the realisation: I am the whore.

As you reach the midway point of chapter two the mood is pretty bleak. God has made it clear exactly how his people have behaved, and verse 13 ends like this:

“…she burned offerings to them and adorned herself with her ring and jewellery, and went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the LORD.”

Verse 14 begins with a ‘Therefore…’ and you think you know what to expect.

Perhaps, ‘Therefore I will turn my back on her and have nothing more to do with her again.’

Or maybe, ‘Therefore I will grudgingly take her back, but I’ll put her in corner and make her feel bad about it for the rest of eternity.’

And yet that isn’t what we get. This is what he says.

“Therefore, behold I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”

Which is mental, but wonderful, obviously. But the thing that really gets me is the ‘therefore’. It’s not, ‘even though she did it I’ll take her back’ but ‘because she is a whore, I will go and woo her and win her and make her my wife again.’

That’s the kind of God he is, you see. One who loves and acts, when winning and wooing means bleeding and dying.

And not to rub our faces in it, or hold it against us, or make us feel bad. But to restore us, to make us clean and beautiful again, and to turn thorns into lilies.

That, my friends, is good news.

In summary: ink.