Exchanging Gardeners for Holy Moments

I had the immense privilege of preaching at Christ Church Woodbury on Easter Sunday (21 April 2019). Why not grab a cup of tea, find a quiet corner, and have a listen?

Listen here

God had laid on my heart a message centred around holiness, understanding what it is, seeing it around us, creating space for the holiness of resurrection, and sharing those moments with others.

My prayer is that as you listen it creates a holy moment for you.

Today is the darkest day of the year.

On 21 December 2018, my wife and I officially closed the church that we had planted over 12 years before, and moved my office out of the building it used. Words could not ever adequately tally what we gave to partner with God in building that church over those twelve years. So, to say it was a hard day, would be a massive understatement. I was also at the time having therapy to work through the grief I was feeling, which ended up being more about the impact my childhood was having on me now. I wrote this, on that day, to help me process what was happening.

Thoughts On Closing a Church

“Today is the darkest day of the year.

I wonder, has the darkness become so familiar that it has moved from foe to friend?

Darkness has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember:

As a child, the loneliness of the dark became a companion in my own loneliness.

Hours were spent hiding behind cloaks in darkened wardrobes and tunnelling to the depths of the worlds beneath my bed.

I never found Narnia on the other side of that darkness.

Maybe that is what I was looking for.

The darkness of night never felt dark enough under the moon’s spell of light.

So I would wander into the pitch black dimension of the forest behind my home, ironically lit with the vividness of my imagination.

Was the darkness friend or foe?

The memories are fond, but each one finished with fear drawing me away from the dark and into the light.

Whatever the case, the familiarity enabled me to step into the darkness of the lives and stories of others with ease.

Stories of childhood accidents, trauma, and abuse.

Stories of betrayal, unceasing pain, and grief.

Stories of shattered dreams and haunting ambitions.

Narnia never seemed to be at the back of those wardrobes either.

Hours spent searching the darkness for the lost and vulnerable, helping the wounded hold on to life, and painting a picture with my vivid imagination of what this dark forest looks like in the light.

Years of sacrifice and compassion towards others, driven by the small boy of my past who is haunted by loneliness.

As hard as it was, the darkness gave me purpose, worth; it provided the space for me to reflect the One in whose image I was made.

As others rushed away from their darkness I spent a decade rushing towards it.

Although fear always drew me back to the light, if I’m honest, it is in the dark that I felt most at home.

Today is the darkest day of the year and is supposed to be the end of the darkest season of my ministerial career.

‘Good things are ahead.’

‘God blesses his faithful servants like you.’

‘This has all been preparation for something better.’

‘God has great things in store for you.’

Say the voices of those calling from the safety of the light.

Do they not know?

As exhaustion rips my body to shreds I push to rise before the sun so I can rest in the pre-day darkness of morning.

To me, darkness is sacred space.

Darkness is holy.

Is it friend or foe?

I am still not sure.

What I do know is that as the seasons turn on the peak darkness of today I am grieving the fading darkness more than celebrating the rising light.

As I struggle to imagine a world without darkness I find myself not wanting to.

The world seems to think it is time to work in the light, but there is so much left to do in the dark.

Maybe this time I can find a few others who feel at home in the dark to join me.

In the meantime, tomorrow is not the darkest day of the year, and it’s coming.”

Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you are closing a church and feeling alone, feel free to get in touch with me – it is nice to have friends who know. If you feel at home in the dark like me, I would love to chat about how we can keep revealing Jesus in these places.

Grace and peace.

Suicide Safety Plans

I recently came across a great resource for those struggling with suicidal thoughts and the people that support them.

It is the Staying Safe website and you can find it here. On the website you can find videos, templates, suggestions, and encouragement in making a plan to help you stay safe when things feel so dangerous and fragile.

This is what the website says about itself:

“The Staying Safe website is a potentially life-saving resource developed by 4 Mental Health, with invaluable with invaluable input from our Expert Reference Group of international academics, people with lived experience (including of surviving a suicide attempt, self-harm, supporting a friend or family member or bereavement by suicide), suicide prevention experts, mental health practitioners, general practitioners, policy makers, public health experts, sector experts, educationalists and concerned citizens.

StayingSafe.net offers compassion, kindness and easy ways to help keep people safer from thoughts of harm and suicide, seek support and discover hope of recovery through powerful videos from people with personal experience.

The website provides vital ‘Safety Plan’ guidance tools jointly funded by NHS England, with easy to print / online templates and guidance video tutorials purposefully designed to help people through the process of writing their own Safety Plan to build hope, identify actions and strategies to resist suicidal thoughts and develop positive ways to cope with stress and emotional distress.

Tragically, suicide takes far too many lives, yet suicide is preventable. Anyone struggling to cope or experiencing deep distress may begin to think about harming themselves and consider suicide as a means to escape their emotional pain. It can be incredibly difficult to think clearly during these times. Everyone is encouraged to PREPARE for possible difficult times ahead BEFORE they happen, by completing a Safety Plan.

During times of deep distress, Safety Plans become a vital and valuable reminder of:

  • What people can do for themselves to get through difficult times
  • Practical ways they can make their situation safer
  • Who to contact for support
  • Where to go or who to contact in an emergency

It is 4 Mental Health’s hope that anyone currently in extreme distress can share our hope that recovery is possible with the right support and that one day keeping a Safety Plan will be common place and regarded an extension of wellbeing and self-care.

For more information about StayingSafe.net, please contact info@4mentalhealth.com”

Remember, suicidal thoughts are often the result of deep emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. Spend some time with people that you can be honest and real with, especially those who can help you laugh. Seek help from a GP if you are struggling to sleep, because rest is so important right now. Learn to recognise the signs that things are getting worse, and use your plan to interrupt that cycle. It may take time, but things will get better.

Recent Feedback – SWBA Study Day

On Saturday, 30th March 2019, I led a training day for the South West Baptist Association on “Mental Health & Young People”. This included:

  • An opening 1 hour session introducing the topic and discussing how we get the culture towards mental health right in our churches. We also looked at stress and anxiety, their impact, and how to help young people manage them.
  • A 45 minute seminar on the impact of childhood trauma and how to support young people with that past well.
  • A 45 minute seminar on positive mental health exploring using “character strengths” to help our young people develop the traits necessary to have good well-being and be successful at dealing with what life throws at them.
  • A closing 1 hour session exploring how to develop our churches into safe spaces, helpful resources, the importance of good listening skills, and some top tips in relation to anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, psychosis, and self-harm.

Around 70 people attended the event in Exeter, Devon. I asked for those there to fill out a feedback form on the training I provided, and 29 people did so. In four different areas they ranked me from 1 (awful) to 6 (excellent). Here are the average scores from their reviews:

  • Session Content – 5.59
  • Session Delivery – 5.66
  • Interaction Level – 4.38
  • Use of Media – 5.24

Here are a few quotes from the day:

“I’ve learnt not to feel so inadequate around people with M.H. issues. You’ve given us so many tools & strategies & they’re all really creative & fun. I can’t wait to use them! This training is a must. Everyone should do it. We need to be so much more aware as a society and not just leave all these issues up to the “experts” to sort out. We can all become semi-experts / helpful friends”

“An encouraging and inspiring day to help us go out better equipped and informed to help young people with their mental health.”

“I really enjoyed Matt’s intro session. I came in with the question ‘What does positive mental health look like?’ & this was answered.”

“Really thorough training, you know what you’re talking about and I’m so glad I could be here today!”

“Matt recently led a ‘Mental Health & Young People’ Study day for over 70 people, many from amongst our family of churches in the South West Baptist Association. The teaching hit exactly the right balance between presenting medical information and practical application to the lives of those in our churches and communities. Matt’s style is both knowledgeable and accessible which was hugely appreciated by those who attended the day. It is my pleasure to commend Matt as a tutor in Mental Health, particularly within the specialist area of younger people and churches.” – from Carl Smethurst, Regional Minister – Mission, South West Baptist Association

Seeking Secrets

Whilst preparing for a training day that I was leading recently, I came across a series of videos made by Jubilee Media and posted on their YouTube channel. In the videos, people are invited to write down their biggest secrets, most painful memories, proudest moments, etc. on a piece of paper – anonymously. Then, a series of strangers sit down in a chair, choose a piece of paper, and read the secret out.

To say that these are powerful would be an understatement. For me, one of the biggest things that stood out as I watched these videos was how often the person reading the story had a shared similar experience. We often get convinced that we are alone in our trauma, pain, and struggles; but this is rarely true. It usually does not take long to find someone who has experienced something related to what we have when we begin to open up and share.

This was certainly true of my wife and my experience when we shared about our stillbirth and miscarriages. Time and time again people we shared with would go on to tell us of their pain that they had kept hidden for so long. On one hand, to become aware of so many others hurting is deeply heart-breaking; but it is also deeply comforting to know that you are not the first person to survive walking down this road.

If you have time, take a look at some of these videos, and maybe consider opening up to and sharing a bit more of your life’s story with someone you trust today.

For me, this why the story of Jesus, God himself, dying to rescue us from our shackles of brokenness is so poignant and powerful. We can know for certain that God knows what it is like to despair and lose hope, to journey into the hell of life. And alongside that, we can know that Jesus survived that hell and has promised to walk beside us as we journey through our own.

Today I pray that you know Jesus’ presence on your journey.