‘As an infertile man, did Jesus’ offer of “life in all its fullness” still apply to me?’
Rev Elis Matthews, 37
When Sheila and I married in 2005, the fairy tale was very much alive. We’d met at university, fallen in love and now we were standing in front of each other in the church I’d grown up in, making our vows. We both imagined that soon enough we’d be bringing our own children into the world and that ‘happily ever after’ could commence.
Surprisingly, I’m now the vicar of that church, but the fairy tale looks somewhat different. In 2011, after a year of trying to conceive, I was diagnosed with azoospermia. Google it – I had to! Basically, I’m infertile, and any dreams I had of fathering a child died as I heard the words: “You have zero sperm.”
The diagnosis was a heavy blow. My instinctive reaction was to put on a brave face; to ‘be strong’ (whatever that means). It didn’t work. A few months later, I froze at my desk; my new internal monologue became: “I can’t do this.” It was incessant, and I started to cry. It would be some months before I was properly able to return to work. Cue counselling, trips to the doctor, medication to curb anxiety and many visits from sympathetic family and friends. There were times I thought I would never recover my sense of self; I felt that if I couldn’t father a child then I was worthless. I felt that everyone would be better off if I wasn’t around. Over time, thanks to the counselling, the time off, the love and support, and a fresh start in a new town, I came through the depression and began to regain my identity. In hindsight, I am a better, more empathetic person because of those dark months.
That season of diagnosis and depression was the biggest test of my faith and my marriage, but it was also a time of discovery. I wouldn’t say I was angry with God; mostly I felt numb. I lost all joy and humour for a while, and struggled to make even the simplest decisions. I found it hard to pray. I remember moments of desperation and general weeping and wailing, which is maybe the most honest kind of prayer. I relied on the prayers of others; a great lesson.
One thing that did happen during this time, which I cherish now, is a penny-dropping moment, right in the heart of the pain. Grace has always been central to my faith in God, the thought that God’s grace is always greater than we can comprehend or imagine. When I was thinking about how desperately I wanted to be a father, how unfair it all was on Sheila, how God could let this happen, God reminded me quite beautifully that a baby had already been born, in whom all my hopes and dreams had already come true. The baby born in Bethlehem is the answer to all our prayers; anything we receive on top of this is a bonus, a grace. Was I prepared to accept this truth, and live with that perspective? As an infertile man, did Jesus’ offer of “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10) still apply to me? I decided there and then to answer “yes” to those questions, and that was a massive step in my recovery from depression and in accepting my diagnosis. This ‘grace perspective’ has been a guiding light ever since, a lighthouse in the storms of life. It helped me accept who I am, gave me courage to blog with others about my story, which in turn has put me in touch with a whole new community and made me feel less alone.
The pull of the fairy tale is strong, but ultimately false. Real life, which is more like a wrestling bout, is better. As we’ve journeyed through assisted conception, parenthood and now, vicaring, I’m trying to maintain the right perspective, and tell my story without shame, by God’s grace.
Read more about Rev Elis’s journey within fertility, including the birth of his son, on the blog saltwaterandhoney.org
‘The grief expanded like hot iron in my chest as my ordered world turned to chaos’
Anita Cleverly, 68
The doctor was tall and young with fair hair and he said, very gently: “The child is not alive.”
I heard, but I didn’t believe. A nurse led us, with our friends, into the innards of the great, grey hospital, and then to a room in the centre of which, on a full-sized hospital bed, lay the tiny, motionless body of our only son, Samuel, “asked of God”. Of course, he wasn’t really dead, because he couldn’t be. Every fibre of my being rose up to refuse the sight before me. He would soon revive, we would take him home, and the doctor would help us.
Thus began our first real journey of bereavement; a cot death, for which there is no explanation, had taken our nine-and-a-half-week-old son. The unthinkable had happened, and our longed-for son was gone from the earth. The grief expanded like a hot iron in my chest as my ordered world turned to chaos.
We had arrived in California one week earlier for a placement in a church as part of my husband Charlie’s training for ordination.
Previously we had both been secondary school teachers, but we had sensed a call to ministry and followed the lead, full of enthusiasm and expectation as we prepared to serve a church and try to seek first the kingdom of God.
As long-time friends, we had married a few years earlier and become parents to two beautiful little girls; like many parents we longed for a son to complete our family. Instead, we chose to see out our three-month stay in San Jose and to bury Samuel there. We were expertly loved by our close friends with whom we were staying, and by their church that we were there to learn from. Grief is not linear and takes you by surprise as sounds or smells or sights assault your senses, but very slowly we learned to laugh again, hesitantly at first, when laughter seemed inappropriate in the face of this enormity. We were loved towards healing, by kindness and generosity; our friends sent Charlie and I off alone fora weekend in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where we watched Chariots of Fire and walked the beach, and gingerly rediscovered each other.
Back in England I started to volunteer for the Sudden Infant Death Foundation (now known as The Lullaby Trust) and discovered that the death of a child often exposes cracks in the foundations of a marriage that are sometimes irreparable – a bereaved parent has sparse resources to comfort their partner. We wrestled with this too, but found comfort in, and were soothed by, the presence of God through our friends, his word and his people. Our great regret was the decision not to take our little girls to Samuel’s funeral. Now a bereavement counsellor myself, I would always advise giving children, however small, the opportunity to say goodbye.
Today I am relearning all over again how to lean on God who is faithful through the dark night, in the wake of my beloved sister’s recent death in a horrific car crash in South Africa. The world is very broken, but we have a faithful God who enfolds us in our grief if we let him. It will be dark for a long while, but “Wait on God alone in stillness, O my soul; for in him is my hope”, and one day it will be light again.
Anita Cleverly’s story of bereavement is told in further detail in Deep Night, Bright Morning: Rediscovering the power of hope (David C Cook)
‘Chronic illness and disability are a bereavement. In some ways, faith makes it harder.’
Rev Michael Wenham, 70
I had always dreamed of ministry in an urban parish and after twelve years in the country, I was shortlisted for a post in Reading, but for some reason still unclear tome, I withdrew my application. Within months my symptoms started.
The first symptom was partially losing my voice, which I put down to tiredness after years of uninterrupted parish duties. I could still speak, but according to the local lads I sounded drunk and a friend thought I’d had a stroke. My wife, Jane, and I had planned a longer-than-usual summer break in Scotland, so I held out, thinking it would improve. It was there that my second symptom appeared. While exploring a narrow path above Loch Moidart my nerve gave way and I felt I was losing my balance. Jane steadied me and we turned back. At the time I didn’t connect the two symptoms, but, as both got worse, the GP swiftly referred me to specialists.
After a year of tests, I had an appointment with the consultant who told me that I had a “motor neuron disorder”. I think I asked how long I had to live (the average MND post-diagnosis is 14 months). The doctor was reluctant to answer and said it was different foreach person. Some friends and family had been praying, so maybe that accounts for my relative peace of mind at that point: I remember walking out from the old hospital into the sunshine with Jane and going to The Edinburgh Woollen Mill shop in Oxford and buying a bone-china mug.
After the diagnosis I didn’t feel the absence of God’s love or wonder: “Why me?” I suppose the pouring out of love from my family, the church family and the villagers where we lived was, for me, the expression of God’s love. As for God speaking, the first instance was when my local bishop, Dominic Walker, sent an email saying that often God worked more powerfully through weakness than through strength. He was right. Another was a picture: window shutters don’t extinguish the sun.
I had been unexpectedly impacted by the Holy Spirit a few years earlier and I think that had transformed my feelings about God. Various kind friends took me to high-profile healing meetings, but I wasn’t healed. The most helpful prayer was an embrace by Heidi Baker telling me that Jesus loved me.
I’ve come to accept that things will get worse for everyone who cares for me, and for myself, but I consider myself blessed because I have a loving wife who’s not going to give up on me, and because I’m able still to enjoy life, even though I’m totally dependent on her.
When he was bereaved, CS Lewis wrote: “Don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” I tend to agree. Chronic and terminal illness and disability are a bereavement. In some ways, faith makes it harder as it seems to contradict the love of God, and it raises a raft of questions, such as: “Why am I not healed?” and “Do I not have enough faith?” And it doesn’t make the frustrations and the indignities any the less.
To someone going through what I’m going through I would say: “First, I’m so sorry you have this beast of a disease, but it’s not a death sentence; you have been bereaved. If you are human, you will feel self-pity. I recommend limiting that to 15 minutes a morning, and otherwise cultivate an ‘attitude of gratitude’. Every day is a gift.” Then I’d say: “We are designed to be interdependent. There is no shame in relying on others, whether partners or carers. And don’t give up on fellowship. If there is one, find a local support group – when you’re ready.” And lastly, I’d say: “If you ever want to talk, here I am.”
To myself I would say: “You were never promised it easy. You’re not on your own. Expect your mind and your horizons to be expanded – and to find Jesus in unexpected places and people.” And I’d add: “One day, sooner or later, I trust, you will be made whole, and all shall be well.”
Michael Wenham’s journey with MND is documented in his book My Donkey Body (Lion Hudson)
‘I felt something snap in the back of my head’
John Sutherland, 49
I joined the Met police in September 1992, at the age of 22. Policing was the only job I had ever seriously considered doing. I wanted to be part of something that mattered –and I was looking for adventure. Over the course of the next 25 years, I served in a variety of rank sand roles across London. It was my duty and my joy. My last operational posting was as the borough commander for Southwark in south London, one of the toughest areas in the UK, from a crime perspective, and also close to where I live with my wife, Bear, and our three children.
As a society, I don’t think we have even begun to understand the compound impact on police officers of repeated exposure to extreme trauma. I found out personally when I started to feel unwell a few weeks before my 43rd birthday. I was visiting America, taking a break from the usual routine and the relentless pressures of the day job, savouring some time and space to think. It began while attending a church service. I was standing somewhere near the front, there was music playing and I felt something snap in the back of my head. There was no warning sign, no prior indication. It just happened. And it was absolutely a physical sensation – like an elastic band, long held at breaking point and suddenly let go. Ping. As I stood there in the church, in the place where delight and joy would usually be found, anxiety and uncertainty fed themselves into my imagination and slowly began to obscure everything else.
My breakdown triggered a crisis of everything– life, work, faith. I was unable to go to church for the best part of six months. I was unable to open my Bible and I could barely say a word of prayer. But there was one verse from Psalm 46 that lingered and remained: “Be still, and know that I am God”. I was broken completely. And I had nothing. Except the invitation to be still and know that he is God.
I have been a Christian all my life, but I had never really understood grace. At some deep level, I think I still believed that I needed to earn God’s approval and affection. And my breakdown left me with nothing. One quiet morning at home, I remember asking whether my ‘nothing’ was enough. Whether it was enough for him to love me. And the extraordinary answer to that question was/is : “Yes.”
I am less certain of more things than I ever have been in my life, but I have begun to discover something of the mystery of grace: the rumour that I am loved beyond measure, just as I am.
Life is – by necessity – much slower and quieter these days, but it is also deeper, richer and kinder. I was medically retired from the Met one year ago and now I spend much of my time writing and speaking about my experiences.
My faith is also much simpler than it once was. I have lost much of the religion I grew up with, as I have learned to rely ever more on that amazing thing called grace.
There are three practical things that helped me to get better – and to stay better. This is the advice I now give people:
1. Learn how to rest – in a world that is moving far too fast.
2. Learn how to talk – in a world that can shame people into silence. I saw a professional counsellor for more than five years after my breakdown. I would go back to see her in a heartbeat if I needed to.
3. Learn how to follow medical advice. The first thing I did when I woke up this morning was to take an antidepressant pill. I’ve done so every morning for the last six-and-a half years and I will continue to do so for the rest of my life if I need to. And I am not ashamed of the fact. It’s important to say that meds don’t work for everybody - but they do work for a lot of people, me included. Taking them is not the consequence of unbelief or a lack of faith on my part (or on the part of anyone else who takes them). It is, simply, the wise and sensible thing to do.
What happened to me in 2013 was completely shattering – and if you were to offer me all the riches of all the kings who have ever lived, I wouldn’t volunteer to go back and repeat the experience, but neither would I volunteer to give up all the things I’ve learned and all the ways in which life has changed.
John Sutherland’s story of his breakdown is told in Blue: A memoir (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
‘Singleness has always known my name’
Faith S Dore, 35
I always hoped that I would be one of those women who could be proud of herself for being in a ‘long-term relationship’, but sadly I feel like singleness has always known my name. Past relationships have come and gone and, while I gave my all, many times I ended up disappointed and unappreciated. My last relationship ended in 2008. We were engaged and it finished sooner than I had hoped.
Although I long for companionship and would rather be married than single, I have come to realise that it’s not something I can or want to rush. I have prayed, questioned and asked if it is the will of God for me to be single, which I must confess has been one of the hardest things to do. My faith has been tested at times; I have doubted God’s goodness for my life, especially when it seems that everyone else around me is being blessed with partners, careers, answered prayers and more, but when I started to learn more about who God says I am, my value and worth, God’s peace comforted me.
This journey of singleness has shown me that as much as I thought I was alone, I’m really not. I have other brothers and sisters around the world, and close by, that feel the same way as I do; but also a God who comforts me and helps me to understand that my worth is important, a treasure, and not something to just give away to anyone. I have begun to understand that his timing and his ways make more sense than my own.
To others grappling with singleness, I would say: “Don’t give up! You are not alone and your single journey is not in vain. Continue to work on yourself; allow yourself to grow into the wife or husband you want to be. You are beautifully and handsomely made, just the way you are, and if someone doesn’t like you for who you are, then clearly, they are not right for you. Live, there is no time like the present, for fulfilling your dreams, goals and God-given visions.”
Faith S Dore is the author of The Process: Living the singles journey as it happens