The Abundant Life of a Broken Heart 4: On Joy

Joy is a strange emotion to engage with and perhaps even stranger to feel when you are in the midst of also journeying with anxiety. But as I've said before the reality of my anxious life, is that it is not a case of being compartmentalised, of one or the other, of being sick, then being well. All these things are mixed together. And so joy and pain are met together.

Joy is the heart emotion that is perhaps most difficult to take hold of. It comes sometimes from nowhere and disappears like a wisp. As we are approaching Lent I'm reminded of the prayer of committal, prayed at funerals, from psalm 103.

For he knows of what we are made;

he remembers that we are but dust.

Our days are like the grass;

we flourish like a flower of the field;

when the wind goes over it, it is gone

and its place will know it no more.

There is something about joy, about flourishing, which is about being dust. Joy comes from a place which knows ourselves the most deeply, knows our mortality, knows our failings, knows our dustliness. I find myself most joyful in the face of the fleeting reality of ‘me’. When I accept my inconstancy and my total inability to keep myself alive, this is the place of joy, freedom and playfulness.

When I no longer need to worry, or be anxious, about portraying myself as perfect, as impassable, this is the place where the chains come off and I am liberated. My flourishing is dependent on my utter dependence on God for my next breath. Joy is dependent on the capacity of human beings, to be able to die, to let go, to let our self go, to be transformed. The capacity for joy is dependent on our capacity for pain. Joy and pain are met together, life and death kiss each other...

Anxiety is rooted in the part of the brain which protects us from death. It sounds like a good thing in that respect, and it can protect us from being reckless, protect us from a certain kamikaze attitude to our self, perhaps borne out of a self-hatred.  This is not what we are invited to, when we are invited to accept death as the gateway to life.  In that sense, embracing the capability that we have for death is not a wish to die.

But it is from this place that the anxious heart can work either for or against our flourishing. The mechanism in the brain that deals with anxiety, incites us to fight, flight or freeze. To do whatever we can to avoid pain and death. If I allow myself to be consumed by this urge and to stay with it in a prolonged way, then the purpose and manner of my life becomes the avoidance of death. This is not the way of joy. Joy is not simply the avoidance of pain. The anxious mind can fool us into thinking that this is the case. And sometimes there is a need to do just that, to avoid, in order to take a breath, a step back, regain perspective, or heal. The problem is when this becomes a way of life. The temptation can be strong.

But the anxious mind can also help on the path to joy. Simply because the anxious mind is drawn towards the acknowledgement, if not always the acceptance, of death and of our mortal bones. The anxious mind is often in the best place, then, to make this journey to acceptance of mortality and therefore to the place of freedom from having to 'save our life'. And in this place of freedom, away from living in this defensive way, is the potential for true flourishing and the joy that can only be found in becoming the person God has made us to be. In knowing that we are dust brought to life, and only sustained in that life, by the breath of God, we are released from having to be our own source of life and joy. 

Often we, I, am caught up in the idea that I am in control of, or to put it more positively, responsible for, my own happiness.  This is what we are taught.  You must grasp it for yourself and if you are not happy, then really, it is your own fault.  You are the master of your own destiny…or something.  But joy is that thing which takes us by surprise, and over which we have no control, it enters our heart through the back door and is often found in the most inconsequential of things.  Such as the breath or heartbeat that we are given each moment, neither of which we have any control over.   

Perhaps the wisdom of pursuing joy is that it cannot be pursued, controlled, manipulated or manoeuvred.  The way to joy is to know our capacity for pain. And as we journey to Lent, to be reminded that we must know Christ in his suffering, so that we may join him in his resurrection. 

Maybe I am invited to leave a little nook in my heart for the surprises of God to delight me.  To remember that joy is a gift, just as my breath and my heartbeat are gifts.  What I have to bring, is to pay attention to those gifts and to be grateful.



As a father has compassion for his children,

so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.

For he knows how we were made

he remembers that we are dust.

As we head towards Lent, I am reminded why this is, I think, my favourite part of the Church's year. I am at my most liberated on the Ash Wednesdays of my life. Those moments when I am able to receive the ash, real or metaphorical, and hear the words 'remember you are but dust and to dust you will return, turn from sin and be faithful to Christ'.

These are the moments I’m at my most real, where I am freed to say 'I am a sinner' and therefore feel the full force of what it means to receive the grace of God. All the verses in
Scripture which speak of us being sinners and the necessity for us to confess our sins, sing in my heart. Because it is in this reality and in the bearing all before God, the nakedness of our heart and soul, that God loves us.  Only in the love of God, I am able to return to Christ again, because whilst I am still a sinner, God comes to save me.

And honestly, that brings me joy.



The Abundant Life of a Broken Heart 3: On Pain

I wanted to write about my experience of anxiety in a way that rejects the binary narrative of 'either' being, for example, happy 'or' being sad. That reflects the reality of my life which has life and death all mixed up and sometimes, often, feels like the experience of living is brighter and more real, for being in the midst of a sense of dying.
I have also wanted to write with the honesty that this is not something which is 'fixed' or, to be honest needs fixing. That in the particularity of my own personhood, this is how my brain works. Sometimes the anxiety is more intense or less intense, but either way it gives me certain lenses through which I perceive the world, myself and others. And, perhaps difficult to understand, I am thankful for these lenses.

All this to explain that instead of writing about Joy which was my intention this week, I'm writing on Pain. Because the last couple of weeks have felt painful in this regard, and I want to be truthful about what that is like. And no better time for that, than when you're in it.

These moments tend to come for me when I've had a period of chronic anxiety, often circumstances catalyse this, and I feel gently nervous over a long period of time. It's not always unpleasant, a little like being excited, butterflies ever present in your stomach. But there can come a moment of crisis, where either this is alleviated, or intensifies. For me the last couple of weeks have felt like an intensification. The sense of 'threat' descends. The almost pleasant butterfly sensation tightens and becomes nausea, the desire to hibernate is Very Strong.
I have some idea why this has happened right now, I think the best explanation is 'shit happens'. Nevertheless the point is what do I do with this pain? How do I make sense of it and myself?

It is so easy to want it away and a good proportion of me, the perfectionist control freak part, is really quite pissed off. I really really hate being vulnerable. I especially hate it when it seems to have taken charge. If I am to be vulnerable, I want to offer this to you in manageable bite sized pieces, in an order that is chosen by me and of which I am in control. Instead of what feels like a churning frothing whirlpool of vomit that will erupt without warning and make a mess.
So even if I wanted to (and I mostly do), it is impossible for me to control these emotions. The only thing is to deal with the vomit. In terms of the Christian faith I walk, it's the reality of sitting with the suffering. Of touching the leper. The leper that is me, needs to be embraced, as a leper, before any healing and restoration can begin. I need to embrace the parts of me that I struggle with, the needy wounded, suffering parts.

Sitting with pain and refraining from taking on the role of Job's comforters towards myself. Allowing the pain to be noticed, to exist and for that to be okay - not that it feels okay necessarily, but that it's okay that it's not okay.

Now, I suppose there is a question about 'wallowing'. Sitting with pain in such a way that is unhealthy. Or perhaps that's just my question? (cross reference Perfectionist Control Freak) I guess my approach to this is that there is a fine line between a healthy embrace of one's woundedness and becoming consumed, but this line has to be walked, there is only this path.

What does sitting with pain look like? It looks like silent prayer - no busy words, no platitudes, no petitions, just 'here I am'. It looks like pause and paying attention - not rushing through the day, but taking the time to recognise what's going on in your head and heart, naming the particular pain whether it's anxiety, fear, shame, anger, notice it and mention it to yourself and God. It looks like being incredibly kind to yourself, parenting and pastoring yourself well. It looks like inviting people to help you, not to fix you, but to know your vulnerability. Do Not Hibernate - this is my strongest temptation, it is a way of controlling the pain but it does not engage with it, it hopes it will pass without having to think about it.
It is euthanasia.
It will, as all things, pass. But pain teaches us. It teaches me about the kindness of God and that wrath and anger is in my own heart. It teaches me that God is good and I'm reminded that he touches the leper, the bleeding woman, the sinners, so I am not untouchable.

Soon the Threat Level will decrease, and I pray that I do not forget.


Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.

                                                                                      Ps 86.1

The go to place in the bible for pain must surely be the Psalms of Lament. And Psalm 86 captures for me such a lot of what it means to pay attention to and sit with your pain. There is no running away from what is going on in the emotions.
And verse one particularly draws me, because it is honest about being needy. One of the things I find most difficult is the reality of my own need. I don't want to be needy, I don't want to be perceived as needy and I don't want to accidently leak my need all over you because I want to be self sufficient.

The difficulty here is not in being helped and supported by other people but when we think another person can fill the abyss of our need. This is a sign that we are not okay with our own neediness. We want someone to fix it, knowing we can't do it ourselves.
The psalm orientates me to God, to the belovedness that I have in God, from where all need is satisfied. In the words of the psalm I am 'allowed' to be needy, but I am not in need of the absence of my need, I am in need in the presence of love, grace and mercy. Wholeness is not in the taking away of the pain, but in the abundance of God.


The Abundant Life of a Broken Heart 2: On Dying

In living with the particular broken heartedness that is anxiety, I have tried to be very intentional about the 'living' part, that I wrote about last time. But there is also something to say about dying.

For me (I will make this caveat a lot, because I want you to know that everyone's journey is different, and I don't want you to assume another's journey with anxiety is the same), there are two ways in which I experience the concept of dying. Firstly, and commonly I believe for the anxious, when I am in a high state of anxiety, a panic attack for example, or a long phase of 'higher than usual' chronic anxiety, I might actually think I'm dying, right there, or that I have a non curable illness. In my teenage years I spent a lot of the time thinking I had a brain tumour - not helped by the physical symptoms brought on by what I now know to be anxiety: headaches, lack of focus, forgetfulness. Ongoing anxiety over long periods of time can end in hypochondria for me. Something that is useful to know, so that I can talk to my soul in gentleness, humour and a good pinch of 'you will die, but probably not right now, and it's probably just a headache'.

I also find myself much less tolerant of the compartmentalisation of the human person. The dismissal of some dis-eases as 'psychosomatic' (and therefore fake). One of the benefits of having the reflective/anxious mind that I do, is that I have seen the interaction of mind body soul in such a way that I no longer find it simple to separate our human personhood. We are never simply physical or mental or spiritual. We are human. I blame Plato for this western preoccupation with analysing human existence into building blocks.

Some call issues with anxiety a 'mental' health issue. And yet I feel it in my body and soul. It is not simply how I think. Sometimes my mind makes my body rigid or tremble, I might struggle to know how to be 'in' my body. I find it interesting that one of the bodily symptoms of stress is chest pain, often muscular, or palpitations, from the reptilian brain telling the adrenal gland to fire into action. People often think they're having a heart attack. And often what makes me 'well' is to concentrate on my breath. To sit with my feet planted on the ground, rooted in creation, connected with the creator in a very physical way. Or when I go to my dance class, and I can feel every bit of my body, how I move, delight in the body, I'm reminded of being a body who is alive because of the breath of life, the spark of life which has been gifted to me, and all creation. My body does not simply carry my brain or soul around, my body is somehow an expression of my very self. And what I do with my body is inextricable from who I am in my mind and soul. If you need any convincing just read the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians and pay particular attention to chapter 15.

This link between anxiety and the fear of dying must also of course stimulate reflection on the reality of dying. For we will all die. In fact sometimes I have observed that the anxious are at least not in denial about this. The joy of living that I experience is sometimes hard won, sometimes it slips from me, but it also is never superficial and is perhaps because, not in spite of, the fact I know I will die.

This takes me on to the second way in which the idea of dying impacts me. And that is the very real, mind body soul, reality, that in order to live, I must die. I guess this is what Paul talks about as dying to self. We often interpret this as about being less selfish. Perhaps this makes us feel better about the dying part. But for me this is a real death. It has been about the image I hold in my head of who I am. One of the hardest things to allow to die is the idea of being strong or invulnerable somehow. Of being self sufficient, independent. When I had my first acute period of anxiety and took medication to help alleviate the constant adrenalin rush, I told myself that it was pure circumstance that had somehow knocked me off balance. The second time, well... there were some circumstances, but…
I began to think about the reality of me. Of how 'I' was reacting to my circumstances. That I might accept, even value, the vulnerability that I clearly have. And in this growing accepting of this vulnerability (still in process), there is a dying involved. I had to let go of a self which ancient philosophy, modern psychotherapy and the mystics call 'the false self', because this is the only way to live.  To allow resurrection.

It is still difficult for me. I kinda like the 'old woman' I thought I was. And sometimes she is more comfortable and safe. This is false of course, but it takes energy to resist her. Although I think I mostly know now that she isn't real.

And I know that Resurrection is true and is coming. Because I have experienced resurrection with a small 'r' and it’s given me a foretaste and a longing. And there are days, they come more often, where I really do know myself dead and alive.

For a long time I have loved 1Cor15. The images of death as the gateway to life have resonated strongly with the reality of my own life and that proclamation of v31 'I die everyday!' delights me.
As if when I awake, my first breath is my dying breath. Breathing out the 'old woman' who suffocates me and breathing in the Breath who brings me to life.
Paul's assertion of the bodily resurrection is so readily missed in our contemporary Christian story. Even though bodies have begun to be recovered in our resurrection theology, most people still have this view that heaven is floaty spirit creatures.
But for me the death of the acorn and the birth of the oak tree is so thrilling. The tree has everything to do with the acorn and yet who would have the imagination that the one grew from the other? And in the body, the wrinkles and grey hairs that are appearing as a sign of my movement towards this real life, are glorious.  The anti-aging movement is a disgrace really - it is offering a pseudo-youth, which is in fact real death, a denial of the truth that aging, dying, is a sign of living, and Life. And don't we see that the tree is surely more solid, real, lasting than the seed. The seed is beautiful but its purpose is always to be the place of nurture from which the tree explodes!
Our life now though, is not simply a dying.  We are not here as some waiting room for the real thing, it could be easy to misinterpret that and many have.  Many have said that what we do and who we are now is of no real consequence, but that is far from what Paul is saying. Resurrection as Paul states, starts now. Each day the choice is before us. To begin the dying so that we might begin, now, to live. 'I die every day!'


The Abundant Life of a Broken Heart 1: On Living

I have often wondered about writing about what it is like to live with anxiety as a disorder.  Especially as a priest, probably especially as a woman priest, and definitely as a control freak, it can be difficult to admit vulnerability.  I have occasionally written the odd comment, and I certainly haven’t hidden my experiences, but often these are written with the perhaps disingenuous implication that everything is all fixed.

I haven’t meant it to be like that of course (or perhaps I have), it is very easy to give the impression of, what is it…wholeness perhaps?  To be fixed, to be self‑sufficient, to be in need of nothing is the goal to which our western culture draws us.  Easy then, to proclaim from the safety of Twitter that ‘I will pray for you’, or to even say ‘we all need prayer, I have needed prayer’, it reveals nothing of our own present vulnerability, and the ‘now-ness’ of vulnerability is important to share.  I recently heard someone describe it as the difference between transparency and vulnerability.  We can often switch one for the other, giving clarity and a pseudo-vulnerability in place of the real thing.  We are, I am, desperate not to be needy.

So, I wonder what it is like to write in the present.  Because the reality is that  this is always my present.  I have lived with anxiety all my life.  It isn’t a ‘disorder’ it is simply ‘me’.  It is how I process the world around me.  It has on occasion, become a little overwhelming and I’ve needed medical help to restore the balance of my brain, but perhaps surprisingly to others, needing medication hasn’t been the defining mark of having an anxious heart, the vast majority of this life has been in the daily walk, the daily choosing to live with courage.

I am thankful that I have had the capacity to make that choice.  I don’t take it lightly that this is a mercy, and I don’t expect anyone else’s experience of anxiety to match my own.  For some the choice for life has been taken from them by the nature and severity of their particular condition.  And there have been, and are (the now-ness being important…), moments where I feel exhausted by having to make such an active choice to live expansively, generously, courageously.  And perhaps often I don’t.  But the moments where I have had victory are so definitive, that they are to me the defining characteristics of this, my, anxious life.

Perhaps it is strange to talk about an anxious life, as one which is marked by courage?  And yet what else would I call it when, at one point, I had to instruct my soul that ‘this is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it’.  An instruction to Joy.  It is on writing those words that I recoil a little – I don’t want to expose myself and that reality feels exposing, but I shall continue because there is a little voice in my head which dares anyone to call it weakness.  This steely resolve to damn well live abundantly, I think I’ve always had that.  Sometimes it can be a little kamikaze, a kind of ‘fuck it’ mentality, which isn’t careful enough with my own vulnerability.  But there was a moment a long time ago when I decided that I wouldn’t say no to things because I was afraid.  I can say no because I don’t have enough time, the right skills, the inclination, but I must not say no because I am afraid.  And for the most part I obey that voice and, for the most part, I think this has been a friendly voice in my head.

One of the things that has helped to make these choices towards abundant life and away from a narrow, desiccated life, is the cultivation of the imagination.  As a child, I wrote stories, read stories, sometimes far too often lived in a dream world.  This imaginative nature, I think made me an adventurer, a risk taker, by default.  A life which is defined and contained by its anxiety is only going to get smaller and smaller, as I try to control the risks that are inherent in life, to make the anxiety go away.  This is counteracted by imagination. I suppose one of my choices was to live with the risk of living, of not knowing what was over the horizon and heading for it anyway – that’s where the stories are told. Like Reepicheep this has been the overriding attraction – there is more!

“'Where sky and water meet, Where the waves grow sweet, Doubt not, Reepicheep, To find all you seek, There is the utter East.' I do not know what it means. But the spell of it has been on me all my life." (Voyage of the Dawn Treader, italics mine)

 And of course, as with Reepicheep, the ‘more’ I seek, is Aslan’s Country and the One who, when all is said and done, defines me.  Only He gets to do that, not you, not even me, and certainly not a label.  I know that when I look at that Face, I will know myself, and my heart will be quiet.  Because to live the abundant life with an anxious, tender, broken heart, for me, has been about allowing that heart to be restless, to seek what it desires.  To be ‘okay’ that sometimes I would rather hide and that sometimes, hiding is okay.  But that sometimes, even often, the song which sang Creation into being, is calling me, like a siren, and even if there are rocks in the ocean, leviathan in the deep, anxiety in my heart, I will go.



The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10.10

The passage that talks most famously and directly about the abundant life of the disciple, is from John’s Gospel.  The passage that brings to life the image of the Good Shepherd.  This is perhaps one of the most conflicted images in scripture.  And it is good for the anxious to ponder.  The Shepherd is the image of safety, the thief or the ‘bandit’ is the image of fear or destruction, together with the bears, wolves and lions (oh my!), the thief and the wild animals sit in the background of this image.  The lurking darkness which we find in Genesis 4, has resonance here.  There is something snapping at your heels, you see it out of the corner of your eye, the hairs stand up on your neck, but the predator is always just out of sight.

For the anxious, the safe place is the sheep pen, and is thought all the safer for the presence of the Shepherd. All is well, in the pen, with the Shepherd.  The Shepherd is safety.  But the Shepherd does not allow the sheep to stay in the pen.  The Shepherd arrives and leads the sheep out, goes ahead, and they follow him.  They go in and out, freely.  The concerning thing is that the abundant life is one which offers freedom, not penned in, but one in which…you might get lost.

Even worse, the image of the thief, the lurking darkness, keeps you in the pen.  The illusion of safety.  The frightened sheep ends up staying in the pen to be safe, but loses out on life.

The image is switched: the Shepherd, who is also the gate, lets the sheep out, out into the potential world of danger, but the thief has already climbed over the wall and is in the pen.

My anxiety tells me that I am safer maintaining the status quo of my life, doing what I can control, and only that, then I will be safe.  This is an illusion.  I do not have control and the thief is already in the pen. 

The best place for me is to take the risk of following the Shepherd.  I might get lost.   

Christmas Ode

Christmas Ode
[painting by Rev Laura Ferguson]

So you think you know the story

of Christmas pretty well?

Universe created, chaos ordered

Humans fell,


Chose a different path

Which fractured everything

We detoured this whole journey

To this little baby king


God’s plan to bring us wholeness

Was always set in Jesus

But our foray out of Eden

Meant God’s plan had now to save us


Too.  In Abram God was still our God

But he didn’t get it either

Sold his wife to Pharaoh

God cursed Egypt – that’s a side bar


Which will come up again

As Egypt is a symbol

For all that keeps us slaves

Liberation is the end goal.


So Abraham and Sarah

Both are given the great promise

Though they can’t have kids

Cos their old and he’s no Adonis


But God says that’s no barrier

They will birth a nation

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah

Becca, Rachel’s son


Joseph is how they end up

in Egypt, doing well

400 years pass in a blip

And now it’s a living hell


God chooses Moses as their Saviour

He is not so keen

Send someone else, he says to God

But he went and we have seen


So many movies of the plagues

And Pharaoh’s stubborn heart

God liberates God’s people

Not before Egypt’s torn apart

                                                  ….by Pharoah’s stubborn heart.


So off God’s people trot

Spend some time wand’ring the desert

Complaining that they should have stayed

In slav’ry…no, they didn’t get it.


But before we write them off

As stupid people from times past

Let’s check ourselves and all the times

We choose what doesn’t last


We are bitter, mean and angry

Ungenerous and small

Those people sat in the desert

Are not far from us at all.


They end up far from God though

‘shipping idols made of gold

Yet God still gives the Ten Words

Which bring life to them of old.

Here’s how to live they say

So that things will go quite well

Live like this, you’ll know God’s blessing

Will they do it?  Who can tell?


No, you’re right, they didn’t do it,

Instead of slaves, became the masters

Cheating, treating people badly

Where will this go?  My nerve’s in tatters!


Well off to exile’s where they went

To learn that that’s what happens

Choose to oppress, you’ll be oppressed

In Babylon’s hanging gardens


Back in slav’ry they have gone

And so return to God

Please come and get us, save us, bless us

And God doesn’t say sod


Off.  I know, I don’t get it either

But that is how God rolls

And if we are all honest

Aren’t we glad that’s how this unfolds


So God rescues them again

Again and again again

This cycle of unfaithfulness to God

Goes on again again


Again again again again

Until we end up here

Romans are the new Egypt

They’re the ones to fear


And this is where the rescue plan

Needs something a little special

So Mary finds herself on the

end of a message from an angel


‘Here’s God’s plan’, Gabriel says

A baby, are you in?

‘A little freaked, but sure’, she says

‘You say he’ll sort out all the Sin?’


‘The Sin which keeps us all as slaves,

Which keeps our souls in chains,

Which is the start of all the wars,

Injustice, tyrants’ reigns’


‘Which cracked the world at the beginning

And so we live with cracks

With earthquakes, storms and great tsunamis

Pain, death and all the lack


‘Of food, whilst others are so full and fat

Sin isn’t just the stuff

we do, it’s all that isn’t right,

It’s the rabid lack of love’


‘Will this baby sort the whole damn lot

Is that to what I’m saying Yes?’

‘Yes’ said Gabriel, then ‘Yes’ said Mary

‘Glad that’s sorted…there’ll be a mess’


‘Sure, but don’t you worry Mary

You are part of this whole story

You are needed in this bit

Because you are so ordinary’


‘The shepherds are whose coming next

To represent the outcast

And then the Persians bringing gifts

All here, the first and last’


‘And last of all are those who hear

This story being told

In Churches up and down the land

Each Christmas in the cold’


‘This story which includes all them

Who briefly dare to come

And hear once more the tale of God

Who left a heav’nly home’


‘Remember when you hear this ode

That the story started then

With Universe created, chaos ordered

Humans fell….I won’t repeat again’


‘This is your story too, and know

God’s waiting for your Yes

There’s no bigger plot surprise

For you…God stepped into the mess.’
[painting by Rev Laura Ferguson]