Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Dr Guthrie - the Preacher

There is a famous story about Dr Thomas Guthrie when he was visiting the studio of an artist.  An unfinished picture lay on an easel and Guthrie suggested one or two adjustments that might improve the painting.  The artist responded: ‘Dr Guthrie, remember you are a preacher and not a painter.’  With his usual rapier wit Guthrie responded: ‘Beg your pardon, my good friend, I am a painter; only I paint in words, while you use brush and colours.’ 

While Guthrie’s enduring legacy is his work as a social reformer, his highest calling was always preaching.  His colleague, Rev Dr Hanna, said of him: ‘No readier speaker ever stepped on a platform.’  Whatever Guthrie may have lacked in fine theology he made up for in passion and imagery.  One anonymous writer said: ‘His oratory wanted none of the polish that distinguished Chalmers’ wild whirlwind bursts, or Hall’s grandly ascending periods, but it had qualities entirely of its own.  More, perhaps, than any other preacher of his time, he had the power or knack of fixing truths on the memory.  He sent them home as if they had been discharged from a battery, and fixed them there by a process peculiar to himself.’

Like many ministers Thomas Guthrie matured into a great preacher over time.  Unlike other students, Guthrie had taken extra elocution lessons while studying divinity and realised that the manner as well as the matter was important in preaching: ‘the manner is to the matter as the powder is to the ball.  I had heard very indifferent discourses made forcible by a vigorous, and able ones reduced to feebleness by a poor, pith less delivery.’ He was inspired by great orators of the past and mentions Demosthenes, Cicero and Whitfield in his Autobiography as those who inspired him in his desire to be the very best communicator of sacred truth. 

Guthrie had to wait five years for a call to his first charge in Arbirlot in 1830.  During his ‘wilderness years’ of travelling in France and working in his father’s bank he battled with doubts about his calling.  Even once he was settled into his first charge he saw little response from the largely church-going parish of Arbirlot.  As one writer says of Guthrie’s early frustration: ‘He had thundered in their ears the terrors of Mount Sinai; he had sounded the Gospel trumpet with a blast loud enough to rouse the dead; he had implored, threatened, and almost scolded them: but nothing seemed to permanently arrest their attention – they went to sleep under his most fervent and heart stirring appeals.’  One day, almost by accident rather than design, the young Guthrie told an anecdote in his sermon.  The effect was electric and when he came home he told his wife that he had discovered how to keep his congregation awake.  From then on, he wove into his sermons the imagery of nature and history.  As Guthrie says in one of his many letters: ‘A thing is easily remembered which is striking, and retained which is striking; and what does not impress your own mind in these ways, and therefore is committed with difficulty, you may be sure won’t tell on the minds of your hearers.  An illustration or an example drawn from nature, a Bible story or any history, will, like a nail, often hang a thing with would otherwise fall to the ground.  Put such into your passage and you will certainly mend it.’

Guthrie’s pattern of preparation was mainly to study in the early morning.  After breakfast he would retire to the vestry where he could be heard rehearsing his sermon.  He believed in ‘committing’ his sermon to memory and was scathing of ‘readers’ (those who rigidly read from a script).  Like all great preachers, Guthrie spent many hours in preparation and believed ‘that God does not give excellence to men but as the reward of labour.’  Even once his sermons were finished he would revise them: ‘After my discourse was written, I spent hours in correcting it; latterly always for that purpose, keeping a blank page on my manuscript opposite a written one, cutting out dry bits, giving point to dull ones, making clear any obscurity, and narrative parts more graphic, throwing more pathos into appeals, and copying God in His works by adding the ornamental to the useful.’

Despite a deep grasp of truth as can be seen in his published sermons, Guthrie believed in simplicity in his sermons: ‘I used the simplest, plainest terms, avoiding anything vulgar, but always, where possible, employing the Saxon tongue – the mother tongue of my hearers.  I studied the style of the addresses with the ancient and inspired prophets delivered to the people of Israel, and saw how, differing from the dry inquisitions or a naked statement of truths, they abound in metaphors, figures, and illustrations.’  As with his character, Guthrie blended a perfect mix of truth and love, passion and solemnity. As he says in a letter to Rev Laurie of Tulliallan: ‘The easier your manner, without losing the character of seriousness and solemnity, so much the better.  Vigour and birr, without roaring and bellowing, are ever to be aimed at.’ 

Interestingly and perhaps rather controversially, Guthrie was not a fan of ministers, particularly new ministers, preaching 3-4 times per week and felt that this was an impossible burden to place on men with large congregations.  Rather amusingly Guthrie quotes in his Autobiography Robert Hall who was once asked how many sermons a preacher could deliver in a week.  Hall replied: ‘If he is a deep thinker and great condenser, he may get up one; if he is an ordinary man two; but if he is an ass, sir, he will produce half a dozen!’  Guthrie dispensed with two services in his first charge at Arbirlot and replaced the evening service with a catechism class.  Far from detracting from the centrality of preaching, Guthrie used this class to make sure his hearers had understood what was preached in the morning.  Given that it was mainly young people aged 15-25 Guthrie tried, as much as possible to make things as simple as possible: ‘the sermon or lecture, delivered in the forenoon, was gone over head by head, introduction and peroration, the various topics being set forth by illustrations drawn from nature, the world, history, etc., of a kind that greatly interested the people such as would not always have suited the dignity and gravity of the pulpit.’

The Rev George Hay recounts a story of hearing Guthrie pleading with sinners.  His vivid description of a shipwreck and the launching of a lifeboat to save those who were perishing was so vivid that a sea Captain in the front seat of the gallery was convinced he was in physical danger and had to be comforted by his mother.  Dr Guthrie leaves a wonderful legacy of passionate gospel preaching.  He laboured to communicate deep gospel truths in a way that was relevant to the society he lived in.  How we desperately need such passionate preaching in Scotland today!

Friday, 1 July 2016

Amazing Grace - Book Review

Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery
Eric Metaxas, 2008, Authentic Media

I love books and I particularly love biographies.  I find that when I read a biography history comes alive.  As Thomas Chalmers once said ‘all history is biography’.  History is woven in to the lives of people and their story give us a glimpse into history.

There can be few lives more remarkable than William Wilberforce and Eric Metaxas has done the world a great service in writing such an excellent biography of this great social reformer.  Wilberforce, I believe, is a man we should study closely at this juncture in our own history.  Why?  Well firstly because he lived at time of extreme social upheaval as we are experiencing.  As Metaxas says ‘Wilberforce can be pictured as a kind of hinge in the middle of history: he pulled the world around the corner, and we can’t even look back to see where we’ve come from.’  Secondly, Victorian society as Metaxas says: ‘was particularly brutal, decadent, violent, and vulgar.’  Slavery was just one of many shocking social ills including child prostitution and labour.  We are seeing a similar descent into coarseness and decadence in our own nation.  But lastly, and perhaps surprisingly for many Christians, much of the the Victorian church was a mere fa├žade of true religion which in turn had a huge impact on its social conscience.  As Metaxas notes: ‘…the outward trappings of religion remained, but robust Christianity, with noble impulses, to care for the suffering and the less fortunate, was gone.’  A little bit like the United Kingdom over the last 60 years, Metaxas says of Victorian Christianity: ‘Religion would be defanged and declawed quietly, not killed in front of mobs.  If, before, the British faith had been like a great and noble lion, it would now become something more like a lapdog that never roared nor dared to bite, that could be fed bits of cheese and petted when one was in the mood to do so.’  So much of Christianity in Britain today is little more than a lapdog that is petted by people as and when they want.  This in turn has led to a retreat from our compassion for the poor and marginalised.

Amazing Grace is a well written account of Wilberforce’s journey from what we might call ‘historical faith’ or ‘nominal Christianity’ to a genuine experience of God.  In twenty-three chapters and three hundred pages Metaxas takes us through the huge ups and downs of Wilberforce’s remarkable life.  Were it not for a decision by young Williams mother, recently widowed and gravely ill, to send him to relatives, he may never have come into contact with true Christianity.  Sent from Hull to his aunt and uncles in Wimbledon at the tender age of eight, he came into contact with a form of Christianity that was very different from the ‘thin gruel and weak tea of High Anglicanism.’  His aunt and uncle were friends with George Whitfield who was used under God as the instrument of the Great Awakening that shook so much of the world out of its spiritual stupor.  More importantly, the young and impressionable Wilberforce met John Newton (‘the old African blasphemer’) who was to have a powerful effect on Wilberforce’s life.  Newton was a frequent visitor to Wimbledon for ‘parlour preaching’ as it was known, and Wilberforce was no stranger to Olney where he visited both Newton and spent many hours with the great hymn writer William Cowper.

Entering Parliament at the tender age of 21 in 1780, and as a friend of William Pitt, Wilberforce was set for a glittering political career.  It is remarkable to think that Wilberforce entered Parliament with such historical figures such as Edmund Burke, Lord North and Charles Fox.  It was a trip to the continent that God used to transform the rising political star.  During the winter of 1874 he took a trip with his former tutor Isaac Milner to France and Italy.  During the trip Wilberforce read The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge.  It started a process in his life that led to a spiritual re-birth.  At that time many described the rise in Methodism as ‘madness’, but after Wilberforce’s family saw the change in his character his mother famously said ‘If this is madness, I hope he will bite us all.’ 

While Wilberforce tried to find his way with his new found faith, he considered withdrawing from public life.  At this time John Newton gave Wilberforce some famous advice: ‘It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of his church and for the good of the nation.’  Pitt similarly advised in a letter to Wilberforce: ‘Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple and lead not to meditation only, but to action.’  Around this time Wilberforce became convinced that he had been given a twofold mission from the Lord: ‘God almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the Salve Trade and the reformation of manners.’  The rest of his life was given over to these great causes.

We owe a huge debt to Wilberforce.  He was used under God to abolish the iniquitous slave trade and civilise a nation that was in many ways barbaric and inhuman in the way it treated many out with the ruling elite.   As part of the Great Awakening and the rise of Methodism he awakened a corrupt church from its erroneous theology.  The Church of England at the time had huge investments in the West Indian Plantations but saw no contradiction between their theology and their actions.  As Metaxas says ‘It’s hard to avoid the harsh conclusion that the Church of England at the time was little more than a pseudo-Christian purveyor of government-sponsored, institutionalised hypocrisy.’  Worse than hypocrisy was the actual belief that the poor should be left in their God ordained position: ‘Many thought God had ordained the poor’s situation, that it was part of the natural order, and that they should therefore be kept where they were, in their misery.  To help them was tantamount to shaking one’s fist at God.’ Such perverse theology is perhaps never expressed today but is implicit in the lack of activity in some many churches.  Wilberforce’s energy for social reform at home and abroad was simply breath taking.  At one point Wilberforce was linked with 69 separate groups involved with social reform. 

The American artist and inventor Samuel Morse said that Wilberforce’s: ‘whole soul is bent on doing good to his fellow men.  Not a moment of his time is lost.  He is always planning some benevolent scheme, or other, and not only planning but executing…Oh, that men as Mr Wilberforce were more common in this world.’  We can learn a huge amount from Wilberforce and I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

What is 'Good Community?'

I was asked to speak at the Cinnamon Network Conference on 16th June 2016 on 'What does Good Community look like?'

The Cinnamon Network is an exciting group of social action projects seeking to bring transformation to local communities.  You can find more information about them here.

I found it a slightly daunting task but this is what I said;

When was the last time you experienced ‘good community?’

When was the last time you really, deeply connected with other people?

I asked my team in Safe Families for Children what community meant to them.  These are some of the responses I got;

·         Welcoming
·         Somewhere I can be myself
·         Somewhere I can serve
·         Somewhere I can feel part of
·         A place where I am known and loved
·         A place where I am rooted
·         A place where I can play my part
·         Somewhere I will be missed if I’m not there
·         A place where I feel safe
·         A place of acceptance

I asked my wife over dinner last Tuesday when the last time she experienced community.

For her it was earlier that morning at the Churches Mother and Toddlers Group 'Little Jewels'.  She connects with the other mums in deeper way, they have a shared interest and passion for kids, they share the struggles of motherhood together and they have been on a shared journey.

‘Community’ is difficult to define.

It is often experienced more than it is defined. 

We can love our various communities but that doesn’t mean our community can’t cause us pain or be very dysfunctional.

It is, of course, possible to be very lonely when we are in a community and surrounded by people.
·         We can be lonely in a family
·         We can be isolated in a church
·         We can be ‘out of community’ in a Christian charity that is all about community.

Community can often thrive in the most unlikely places.  I’m always amazed at the sense of community in my local prison when I go in to take the service once a month.

The Source of Good Community 

Christian’s believe that the source of good community is a God who is already in community himself. 

When God said ‘let us make man’ in Genesis 2 he was clearly revealing himself as a social rather than a solitary being.  As Tim Chester says in Total Church; ‘Divine personhood is defined in relational terms.’

The Trinity is defined by perfect love – shown powerfully by Jesus in his incarnation, ministry and sacrificial death.

If the source of life (God) is in community surely good community is not individualistic – it is relational.

As Tim Chester says; ‘Into our pervasively individualistic world-view, we speak the gospel message of reconciliation, unity and identity as the people of God.  This is perhaps the most significant ‘culture gap’ which the church has to bridge.’

The church is a unique community – not because we are superior – it’s just that there is nothing else quite like it.  It is a community of love and grace like no other.  Unlike many other communities it doesn't exist for itself or its members but the glory of God and to make disciples.  The local church should be the hope of the world in its local community.

The New Testament word for community is koinonia.

This word is often translated fellowship but it means so much more; ‘common’, ‘sharing’ and ‘participation’.

God’s model for community is the church.

The very evidence of God’s love is meant to be our love for each other as I John makes very clear.

The ultimate community on earth is meant to be Christian’s living in koinonia:

·         having a shared purpose
·         a common goal
·         esteeming others better than themselves
·         serving one another
·         living sacrificially
·         and all done in a spirit if humility.

What and incredible challenge!

So what is community and what does ‘good community’ look like?

1.  Good community starts with gifts and assets

People in good community are more than the sum of their problems.

God has made us to be more than our difficulties – he has made us to be in relationship with himself and in community with others.

God has given everyone gifts – he wants us to live life in all its fullness reconciled to him in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But we love to define people by the mistakes they've made don’t we?

·         Offenders
·         Lone parents
·         Troubled teenagers
·         Junkie's
·         Alcoholics
·         Disturbed
·         Homeless

Cormac Russell very helpfully outlines 4 unintended consequences of the top down deficiency model used by so many government agencies;

a)    It defines people we are trying to help by their deficiencies and problems
b)    Money intended to go to people who need help goes to the people paid to give the help
c)    Active citizenship retreats in the face of ever increasing professionalism and technology – only experts can help – the professionalization of compassion
d)    Entire neighbourhoods are defined by their deficiencies and start to believe that some outside professional will come and save them with the funding and resources.

Institutions always reach their end with regard to solving problems – eventually we have to ask the experts – the members of the community.

The good community or the ‘abundant community’ is a place where people are not defined by their problems.

The Abundant Community is well summed up in the African word ‘Ubuntu’ which can be translated in different ways.  One writer has defined it as;
‘I am what I am because of who we all are’.

Another African leader has said;

‘A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.’

Years of research tell us that for community to happen we need to encourage active citizenship. 

Faceless bureaucracies, however well intentioned, don’t empower and support communities to change engrained, cyclical narratives of failure.

The assets that need to be mobilised for communities to be empowered are;

·         The skills of local residents
·         The power of local social networks
·         The resources of local public, private and third sector institutions all working together
·         The physical and economic resources of local communities are harnessed
·         We listen to the stories of our shared lives

The problem with care givers is that we start calling people clients and service users and as Cormac Russell says – when we do this we take some of their soul away – we dehumanise people by labelling them. 

Sometimes we label whole communities, whole cultures, whole continents.  This is particularly true of housing schemes.  People see them as broken and dangerous.   

What if we start with people’s gifts?  What if we respond by deepening relationships?

What if we move from what’s wrong to what’s strong?

A few years ago Bethany Christian Trust started Caring for Ex-Offenders in partnership with Alpha Scotland. 

The national reoffending rate is around 60% - but when CFEO connect men and women with community – that number drops to around 15%.  In around 2 years CFEO has linked around 80 men and women coming out of prison with trained mentors.  Not social workers or psychiatrists, but people passionate about community.

Could it be that rather than doing something to them, these men and women respond positively because they are connected to community and are treated like human beings?

Safe Families for Children was launched in Scotland in October 2014 to prevent children from suffering neglect and abuse, to stabilise families at a time of crisis and to prevent children from entering the care system.  In our first year we have trained 140 local church volunteers, helped 33 families, 73 children and have offered 58 nights hosting.  A simple example of neighbour helping neighbour.  When people are in crisis they need community, compassion and support.  Safe Families in Illinois, America is now the first point of contact for referrals when families are in crisis.  After starting in 2003, Safe Families in America is now working in 80 cities and 30 states.  Isn't that amazing?  It started in England in 2013 and has already recruited 2500 volunteers.  We need a similar movement in Scotland. 

When Dr Thomas Guthrie started the Ragged School Movement here in Edinburgh in 1847 he spoke about the 'almost infinite power of Christian kindness' when dealing with starving, emaciated and homeless street children.  He became 'the Apostle of the Ragged School Movement' and went on to rescue 1000's of street children across Scotland.  You can read more about Guthrie's amazing work here

2.  Good community is all about hospitality

If we don’t welcome new people into our community – it just becomes a private members club.  This is so often what the church looks like.

But as somebody has said 'true hospitality is reciprocal, and not an act of charity.’

This is why so many institutions fail – the care given is one way.  It is paternalism rather than compassion.

In Luke 15 we read that Jesus was accused of ‘receiving sinners and eating with them.’  

The Tax Collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  Tax Collectors were the paedophiles of their day.  They were completely ostracised as traitors.  It was said that they were so despised that even the beggars would reject their charity.  They were the lowest of the low and yet Christ welcomed them.

He goes on to tell 3 Parables about how he views sinners.  They all speak of the love of God – how he doesn’t just welcome clean and tidy sinners who have sorted themselves out – but filthy messed up sinners who stink of the pigsty.  

God doesn't just loves sinners who come to God as penitent, but God actually seeks out sinners in all their lostness.  He doesn't wait for sinners to find Him, he seeks them as we see in the parable of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin.

Doesn’t this tell us a lot about the kind of community Christ wanted?

A radical community of inclusion where those on the very margins are welcomed.  We are to go out and seek those on the margins and welcome them into our community.  

This is a huge challenge for us as a church – we need to welcome into our churches people who we wouldn’t naturally want to associate.  People from prison, people who are from a very different income bracket, people from different countries seeking asylum.  

The 'good community' is a welcoming community – a community of love and grace.  The community encouraged in Isaiah 58 v 7.  Our religious practices mean very little to God unless we are moved with compassion for the poor, the oppressed, the naked and the hungry.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son shows us that Christ wants us to be part of communities where people can get a second chance – where they are accepted for who they are – not where they have to jump through all of our cultural and theological hoops before they are accepted into the ‘inner circle’.

3. Good community is about the power of association

A few years ago ‘Inspiring Leith’ started a Supper Club.  Families in Leith come together every Tuesday night in a local church hall.  Everyone brings their own food and the kids play together in one of the halls.

Last year a Trust that owned lots of houses in Leith decided to sell them off and evict lots of people who had stayed in Leith for many years.  Suddenly the Supper Club became a hive of activity and after a very successful campaign, ultimately the Trust decided not to sell off the houses.  A great example of 'active citizenship.'

If people are to connect in community they need associations, clubs, activities and places to meet.  What Howard Shultz of Starbucks calls the ‘Third Space’ – the place other than family and work where people connect.  That place used to be the church but sadly in so many communities that is no longer the case.

In many poor communities there is nowhere to associate other than the pub or the bookies.  Is it any wonder that so many young people end up hanging around the streets?  Often people are unaware of what exists in their community and this is where Community Builders or Community Connectors can be so useful.

One of my great heroes died this week.  Bob Holman was the very essence of a 'Community Builder'.  He resigned as professor of social administration at Bath University and moved in to housing schemes in Bath and then Glasgow.  Bob was one of the most gracious and humble man I have ever met.  He loved people, he loved his community and his legacy through FARE is incalculable.  You can read his full legacy here.

This is where a church that is community focused can be so useful.  Why are so many of our churches empty for 80-90% of the week?  

Why can’t we open them up to help people connect with each other and who knows ultimately with the gospel of transforming grace.


In 2008, the New Economics Foundations was commissioned by the UK Government's Foresight Project to review the inter-disciplinary work of over 400 scientists from across the world. The aim was to identify a set of evidence-based actions to improve well-being, which individuals would be encouraged to build into their daily lives:

  • With the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community.
  • Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them.
  • Building these connections will support and enrich you every day. 
Be Active
·         Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance.
·         Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy; one that suits your level of mobility and fitness.

Take Notice
·         Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are on a train, eating lunch or talking to friends.
·         Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.

Keep Learning
·         Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food.
·         Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident, as well as being fun to do.

·         Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in.
·         Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and will create connections with the people around you.

It’s interesting that connecting in community is at the very top of the list for well-being. If we want to help people community needs to be fairly high on our agenda.

Good community should be natural for Christians.  We follow a relational God and we trust in a Saviour who welcomed the most unlikely candidates into his community.

The Bible records a remarkable community in I Sam 22.

Midway through Saul’s reign as King God raised up David and surrounded him with an unlikely community; ‘All those in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader.  About four hundred men were with him’.

This rabble, with the chemistry of gifted leadership, commitment and experience, these battle hardened few became a formidable force.

Never underestimate the power of community.  When all the well-adjusted people were following Saul, God was doing something amazing in the Cave of Adullam.  

Let's pray that in our fractured and alienated society more and more people will experience the power of community through the local church.  Let's build 'the abundant community' - that gospel centred community which welcomes the outsider and releases the captives from the chains of sin.  Let's model good community on our church by the way we relate to others and by the way we conduct our relationships.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

A Shipwrecked Saint

The story of the USS Indianapolis is one of the untold stories of World War II.  On July 27th 1945 the ship left Guam and sailed for the Leyte Gulf through the Philippine Sea Frontier.  Despite VE Day being announced in Europe – the war in the Pacific raged on.  Little did the sailors on the USS Indianapolis know that the strange crate they had just delivered to the B-29 Superfortress base in Tinian was the components (including uranium 235) of the atomic bombs that would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki quaintly named ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’.  With no destroyer escort, the huge USS Indianapolis had no sonar to detect enemy submarines.    

To compound matters, the United States command centre for the Pacific (CINCPAC) did not inform Captain McVay that the Japanese Tamon submarine group had been patrolling the very route the ship was to take.  They had sunk the USS Underhill just days earlier.  CINCPAC was desperate to hide the fact that they had deciphered the Japanese codes through their ULTRA program and randomly withheld information from US ships to bluff the Japanese.  The ship sailed in the ‘Yoke-Modified’ position – with doors and hatches open completely unaware of what was about to happen.

On the evening of July 29th, on a calm night, sailing due west at 17 knots, the Captain gave the order to ‘secure from zigzagging’ a technique to avoid torpedoes.   Little did the crew know that deep below the surface 105 crew in a Japanese submarine called I – 58 were stalking the unsuspecting USS Indy.  Just after midnight Captain Hashimoto of I-58 gave the order to fire 6 torpedoes.  The fist torpedo ripped the front of the boat off with the second one hitting midship exploding the ammunition magazine.  Deep below deck was a 21-year-old Christian called Edgar Harrell from Kentucky.  Year later he wrote an acoount of the disaster called 'Out of the Depths'.  Standing on the deck of the burning ship he writes;

Eternity was before me.  And in the midst of my fear and helplessness, I cried out to God in prayer. Anyone who has ever experienced a similar situation will understand what I am to say: There are times when you pray, and times when you pray!  This was one of those latter times.  No one offered to help me because no one else could help me. I was alone – or so it seemed.  But as I reached out in desperation to the Saviour of my soul, He suddenly made it clear to me that He was going to be the Saviour of my life. There was no audible voice.  Something far more comforting suddenly given to me. An unexplainable and ineffable peace enveloped me like a blanket on a frosty night…

For four days, perhaps as any as 600 sailors and marines bobbed about in shark infested waters watching helplessly as colleagues succumbed to dehydration, madness and exhaustion.  Scorched during the day and frozen during the night – the number of survivors dwindled hour by hour.

Men prayed like I never heard men pray. With inconsolable grief each man who was able to talk poured his heart out to God.  With swollen tongues we did our best taking turns to pleading with God for deliverance.  And before one could finish, another would interrupt with his supplications.

In Psalm 77, we see the Psalmist responding to tragedy, or a series of tragedies with a prayer.  He struggles with deep despair and anxiety as all of us will at some time in our life.
We may not be shipwrecked or lost in the ocean but all of us sooner or later will face storms.  We may face what those sailors faced; hopelessness, despair, isolation, trauma, betrayal.

The Bible doesn't shy away from these issues.  We see the subject of spiritual depression and despair in the Psalms (42, 88), in Job, in Jacob, Moses, Hannah, Jeremiah and in Elijah.  Proverbs says; ‘The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity; but a wounded spirit who can bear?’ ch 18 v 14 and ‘A man’s spirit can endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?’  ESV.  The illness of the mind is even worse than the body.  It is a reality that we see in the Bible and we will all face to a greater or lesser degree.  As one pastor says; 

The Psalms treat depression more realistically than many of today’s popular books on Christianity and Psychology.  David and other psalmists found themselves deeply depressed for many reasons.  They did not, however, apologize for what they were feeling, nor did they confess it a sin.  It was a legitimate part of their relationship with God.  They interacted with him through the context of their depression.  Steve Bloem

So what can we learn from this Psalm?  Let's notice firstly;

1.  A Shipwrecked Saint
The Psalmist is in distress of soul.  His distress is loud, late and long.

a) A loud cry
This is not some small complaint.  The Psalmist is affected mentally, emotionally physically and spiritually.  He cries aloud in verse 1.  His distress has erupted, it has overflowed,  He can’t bottle his emotions any longer.  What are some of the feelings of depression?  Sadness (self and others)
·         Worthlessness
·         Anxiety
·         Panic
·         Self-hatred

We see these mirrored in Psalm 77;
·         v 2,3,4 troubled, unable to be comforted, insecure, scared, inconsolable.
·         Overwhelmed, full of anguish v 3
·         Isolated, cut off from God v 7

b) A late cry
The Psalmists lament was in the night.  Edgar Harell says in his little book that ‘Without light you are unable to see anything including the horizon.  The blackness of the night wraps itself around you with an infinite darkness, causing a surreal disorientation and profound isolation.’  Depression eventually affects our physical behaviour. 

Crying, weeping, sobbing
·       Emotional instability or fragility
·       Groaning
·       Sleeplessness – ‘in the night’
·        Inability to speak
·        Inability to pray

Perhaps the Psalmist was weeping when everyone else was in bed.  Perhaps he found the long dark nights the worst.  It brought his feelings of despair into even sharper focus like the the writer of Ecclesiastes;  'For all his days are sorrows and his travail grief; ye his heart, taketh not rest in the night.' Ecc 2 v 23

c) A long cry

The Psalmists distress in not a passing feeling.  It was long, sustained and comprehensive.
We aren't told where the Psalmists depression comes from and we need to be careful in our diagnosis.  It can have physical, emotional and spiritual causes.  We must be very careful not to always think there is a spiritual cause to depression.

As Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones says;
Many Christian people, in fact, are in utter ignorance concerning this realm where the borderlines between the physical, psychological and spiritual meet. Frequently I have found that such [church] leaders had treated those whose trouble was obviously mainly physical or psychological, in a purely spiritual manner; and if you do so, you not only don’t help. You aggravate the problem.

Most of us can bear temporary trials, but when they are long and appear to never end, then we are tempted to despair.The Psalmists distress affected his relationships, it affected his sleep and it affected his faith.  The Psalmist thinks on God, but there is no comfort, no sweetness, no joy.  The thought of God makes him groan.  As Hendry says; ‘When he remembered God his thoughts fastened only on his justice, and wrath, and dreadful majesty, and thus God became a terror to him’.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t think of God but he could only see certain aspects of God.  He despairs of ever experiencing Gods love and favour again.

Does this describe you?  Are you passing through deep waters?  Is your lament loud, long and late?  Do you feel shipwrecked by the events of life?  Let’s look at how the Psalmist responds.

2.  A Silent and Searching Saint v 4-9

a)    The cries are silenced v 4
Either through exhaustion or through mood swings, the Psalmist goes from crying aloud to silence.  Calvin suggests he was so ‘choked with calamities’ he couldn’t even speak.  Some things in life are beyond words.  Grief is often so painful we can’t even articulate the pain.
Perhaps this was why Eli couldn’t hear Hannah – her lips were moving as she poured her heart out to God but no sound was coming out – I Sam 2 v 13.

b)    Looking back v 5,6
The Psalmist thinks on former times.  In his depression the Psalmist was focussed on himself, his troubles and his affliction.  Now he seeks to consider the past – ‘the years of ancient time.’ v 5 (Geneva).  He remembers happier times when he sang in thankfulness.
V 6 ESV ‘Then my spirit made a diligent search.’  As Calvin says God would have us search our hearts when adversity presses upon us, and it is perversely stupid to refuse to do so.  The Psalmist seems to be going from a state of passive distress to a state of active enquiry.

c)  Searching out 7-9
He asks these desperate questions in verses 7-9.  The Psalmist gropes in the darkness for answers.  He is like Christian and Hopeful in Doubting Castlein Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress;
"What a fool am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty? I have a key in my bosom called Promise that will (I am persuaded) open any lock in Doubting Castle."  When we are in despair we turn to the promises of God.  The Psalmist asks in v 7 (Geneva) ‘Will the Lord absent himself forever?’  or in the ESV ‘Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favourable?’  Paul answers that question in Romans; 'Hath God cast away his people? God forbid' – Romans 11 v 1.  The Psalmist says; ‘Surely the Lord will not fail his people, neither will he forsake his inheritance’ Psalm 94 v 14.  His aim was not to undermine his faith but to encourage it.  He asks these questions to seek out the God who he had enjoyed in the past.  As Calvin says In our trials, let us ask the same question, ‘Has God changed his nature so as to be no longer merciful?’ The prophets and fathers also prayed, in wrath remember mercy’ (Hab 3 v 2).  When we are distressed, we need to apply the word of God more than ever.

3.  A Saved Saint v 10-19

a)  A breakthrough v 10
Suddenly the Psalmist stops in verse 9, he pauses - Selah.
The psalmist is beginning to see light again. 
He diagnoses his condition – I see what is wrong with me!
 V 10 Geneva ‘And I said This is my death; yet I remembered the years of the right hand of the most High.
He appeals to ‘the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.’

b)  New Thinking v 11
There is a new confidence – ‘I will remember.’
The Psalmist starts his recovery by thinking differently.
What we can find though is that depression causes us to think in unhelpful ways.  We perceive events and experiences in a certain way which may reflect but also contribute to depression.
•           False extremes – Job 13 v 24, 33 v 10
‘Why do hide your face and count me as your enemy?’
‘Behold he finds occasions against me, he counts me as his enemy.’
•           False generalisations – Jacob Gen 42 v 36
‘Everything is against me.’
Joseph was gone, Simeon was in prison and they wanted to take Benjamin.
•           Turning positives into negatives – Jonah 4
‘It is better for me to die than to live’.
•           False should’s and ought’s – Martha Luke 10 v 40-42
            Martha was distracted with much serving.
Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me alone?
Victim or martyr mentality
‘Martha, Martha you are anxious and troubled about many things but one thing is needful.’
•           False responsibility – Moses Num 11 v 14-15
‘I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me.  If you will treat me like this, kill at once, if I find favour in your sight, that I many not see my wretchedness’.
‘While we often cannot change the providences we are passing through, we can change the way we think about them so we have a more accurate and positive view of our lives, thereby lifting our spirits’. David Murray

c) Past Deliverances
The psalmist persevered through his distress and his questions, until he eventually begins to focus on God once again.  As John Calvin says;  ‘With new found courage, the psalmist firmly grips the memory of God’s past favours’.

Two things comfort the psalmist;
i)  That God’s way is in the sanctuary v 13

As the Geneva/AV says ‘Thy way is in the sanctuary.’  The psalmist can’t understand the trials he is passing through, and he can’t understand the depths of his despair but he is comforted that God’s ways are in the sanctuary – they are beyond our comprehension.  God’s power and holiness are what sets him apart as God.  His holiness is perfect and his power is infinite.  God is not afflicting us out of some perverse pleasure.  He is not the divine watchmaker who stands back and watches his people suffering while he is helpless.  He is holy and pure in his character, therefore all his dealings with his people must be for their good and his glory.  God’s way is not among men – his way is in the sanctuary of heaven.

As Asaph begins to think on God he breaks forth in adoration v 13.  As he focuses on God’s attributes he is comforted.  He starts to see God for who he is – not the parts he saw in his depression.

b) That God’s way is in the sea.
God’s ways are compared to the deep sea which cannot be fathomed. 
He is a god like no other God v 13.  He is God of almighty power.  God’s deeds stand as records of his power in history.  The Exodus in v 15 when God rescued and redeemed his people – the children of Jacob (the covenant) and Joseph (preservation).  The Psalmist also sees God's power in the parting of the Red Sea v 16 and the destruction of Israel’s enemy’s v17.

The power of the sea has led many to feel helpless and hopeless but the Psalmist embraces the God who has power over the elements.  The same God who calmed the storm can calm the storm in the life of the Psalmist.  As Dr Guthrie once wrote; 'We seem sometimes to forget, when we cower down before the tempest, and look before us with a fearful eye on the mighty billows that are rolling on. We seem to forget what the sailor boy said ‘my fathers at the helm’.

4.  A Secure Saint

The psalm ends rather abruptly with this reference to Moses and Aaron leading God’s flock.
Moses had of course been a shepherd for his father in law Jethro and was the shepherd or leader of the Children of Israel.  Aaron of course was their High Priest.

The people needed direction and they needed acceptance with God.  This was the job of the High Priest – to offer up sacrifices in the tabernacle for the sins of God’s people.  By the end of the Psalm it would appear that the Psalmist knew something of the direction and feeding of the good Shepherd.  He felt secure.  He may have been in the valley of the shadow of death but he was now grazing beside the green pastures.  Is this Psalm surely not pointing forward to the Great Shepherd who offered himself up as a once for all sacrifice for our sins?  The one who was ‘despised and rejected by men: a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,’ Isaiah 53 v 3.  Jesus was no stranger to sorrow and anguish.  He never doubted God was in control but he still felt real sorrow, real sadness and real grief. 

How much more than Asaph can we go to our High Priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses – who is touched with a feeling of our infirmities.  Heb 4 v 15

We have seen a shipwrecked saint, a silent and searching saint, a saint saved and a secure saint.  As soon as Asaph started meditating on God; his attributes and his deeds, his fears vanished.  It might not be quick for all of us.  But this Psalm helps us to see and understand that when the storm comes, we have nothing to fear.  Whether we are shipwrecked, abandoned or distressed, God is in control.  And God is able to save in the most remarkable ways.

On the fourth day of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis – when all hope was gone a Lockhead Ventura PV-1 bomber was flying overhead at 3000 feet.  Due to a problem with a weighted antenna sock falling off, Ly Chuck Gwinn was flying overhead and noticed an oil slick.  Dropping to 300 feet he suddenly broke radio silence ‘ducks on the pond’.

The Pacific Ocean is 63,780,000 square miles.  The chances of spotting these men were a billion to one – God saved in answer to prayer.  Yes depression and anxiety will be the reality for every Christian – but God hears, God answers and God delivers.  Psalm 77 gives us great hope that when we least expect it God can deliver in the most remarkable way.