Deep Calls to Deep

Spiritual formation in the hard places of life

Tony Horsfall

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Content

Is there a positive purpose to suffering?

How many times have you heard that question?

And how many times have you felt that the answers are too simple - perhaps even naive?

But what if suffering actually has a positive purpose?

What if suffering is the only state in which humans stand empty enough before God to learn and grow?

Popular author and retreat leader Tony Horsfall turns his attention in his latest book Deep calls to Deep, to the raw pain and honesty of suffering found in the Psalms of Lament, psalms that show the psalmist daring to be real and straight with God.

These 'sad songs' make up nearly a third of all the psalms and yet they are mostly neglected by the church today. Much of our spirituality is geared toward relieving our pain and finding ways to ensure happiness, success and well-being... Anything that contradicts this rosy picture of cheerful certainty is ignored, denied or avoided... Yet struggle and challenge are necessary for authentic spiritual growth. The reality is that God sometimes does lead us down difficult paths as he seeks to draw us closer to himself and form his life within us. Far from being an invalid expression of the Christian life, suffering may well be an inescapable part of the journey of knowing God more intimately.

Tony shapes his work by using the process pioneered by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, of orientation - disorientation - new orientation.

Brueggemann's approach regards the Psalms as a whole as wrestling with the answers to two key questions:

  1. Why do the unrighteous seem to prosper and the righteous suffer?
  2. How can Israel be defeated, given that God has chosen Jerusalem and made a covenant with David?

They speak, as a result, to the eternal human struggle over where our allegiance lies, who is in control of our lives and whether or not we truly believe that God is sovereign.

Brueggemann's scheme identifies psalms that reflect these movements in the life of faith and the seasons of life they represent: seasons of well-being when everything is smooth and we can see that God is in control (orientation); seasons of hurt, alienation, suffering and death when we feel anger and resentment towards God, expressed in the cry of lament (disorientation); and seasons of surprise when joy breaks through the despair, and light replaces the darkness (reorientation). This movement between the seasons is transformational, though never easy and always involving pain and surprise.

Tony selects psalms that develops Brueggemann's process showing how the Psalmist can guide our present-day spiritual formation. Psalm 145 is used to describe the settled situation of orientation. He then considers four psalms that describe different types of disorientation (Psalms 130, 42, 43 and 69). Finally he explores Psalm 30, a prayer written from the perspective of reorientation, where lessons have been learned and the blessing of God has been clearly distinguished from the God of the blessings. A liberating place where the psalmist has accepted and embraced the fact that God is beyond our comprehension and that it is all right to live without having an answer for everything. He now trusts God to be God, recognising that to understand with the heart of trust is better than to understand with the mind. Only this place of understanding will deliver a surge of resurrection life.

Understanding the life - death - resurrection principle will mean that we are not taken by surprise when we find ourselves in a period of disorientation. Rather, we will have an inkling of what God is about and may be better equipped to come through these times as stronger people, more Christ-like and more effective in our service for God.

Interview with Tony Horsfall

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Reviews

Review from the Methodist Recorder 17 July 2015

In this short book, Tony Horsfall, a Yorkshire-based "international freelance trainer and retreat leader", examines the book of Psalms with a view to helping readers to recognise the place of "the depths" in our own journeys.

The book begins with two introductory chapters, which provide an accessible beginning for anyone, placing the psalms in their biblical and emotional context. The reader is reminded that here we are dealing with poetry, not doctrine, yet it is poetry which seeks to address two critical doctrinal questions - "Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?" and "How can God's chosen people experience defeat?"

Any attempt to systematise poetry is bound to be inadequate, but within the third chapter I found the summary of Brueggeman's analysis of the book of Psalms very helpful. He classifies each psalm as either a song of orientation, a song of disorientation or a song of reorientation. Horsfall takes up these terms for the remainder of the book. most of which is devoted to detailed studies of six psalms, one representing the songs of orientation, four examples of songs of disorientation and finally one song of reorientation (Psalm 30).

In the first of these (Psalm 145), which he subtitles "An alphabet of praise", the author says: "It describes what we might call the 'normal' experience of God's people when they live under his bountiful care and protection and life is good and as it should be."

This is the foundation of the book, that most of the time most people are experiencing the goodness of God in straightforward blessing. If that is not your experience, you may find the book's approach irritating. Moving on to the chapters on disorientation (Psalms 130, 42/43, 69 and 88), there are some powerful quotations from other writers and some valuable initial thinking about what may be the "treasures of darkness" (Isaiah 45. 3). The chapter on Psalm 88, one of the darkest psalms of Scripture, is particularly searching.

Even here, though, I found it difficult to swallow the author's conviction that we are "led" into such times of trial for the express purpose of deepening our walk with God; readers will have their own theological stance on the purpose of suffering and I recognise that many will identify with the sentiments expressed in the book.

Between these study chapters, personal testimonies are included. These touch upon the depths of sorrow and depression which may be experienced as a result of divorce, childlessness, chronic illness, disability and bereavement. Probably because the author is keen to demonstrate that hard times ultimately benefit us, each of these stories ends on a hopeful note, but many do contain accounts of the ongoing raw pain and hopelessness which is, I believe, the real experience of many.

Of course, it is an almost impossible challenge to write about "spiritual formation in hard places": if you are in those hard places as you write, you will probably not be able to say anything at all; if you are not, your words may sound glib to someone who is.

While there is much here that is helpful (the questions for group discussion are particularly well-worded), I think those who are themselves in the depths would find this does not go deep enough.

Review by Jill Baker, local preacher in the Thames Valley circuit.


From the Church of England Newspaper April 2015

Deep Calls to Deep is a run through the Psalms and a look at how they can help us in hard places of life. It begins with some solid stuff on how psalms are constructed and how they work. It moves on to looking at specific Psalms in detail and how they can help us in tough times. This isn't a self-help book, but it is a very valuable contribution to the subject. If you have a friend going through tough times or are in a trough then this will do no harm at all.

Review by Steve Morris


I have enjoyed the psalms for 30 years, since I sang them as a teenager, with Ian White who had put them to modern music. But this book by Tony Horsfall has opened up a new world of understanding to me, and helped me to appreciate the psalms in a fresh way.

I don't remember singing the gruesome bits of psalms. Tony Horsfall does not ignore the difficult parts. He explains that the psalms are poetry, not doctrine, and he guides us through seven of these poems. After each, Tony shares a true testimony from someone, which relates to the psalm. These are moving and honest accounts of coping with grief; divorce; depression; chronic illness; childlessness, and the suffering of a child. The psalms have something to say to those who are struggling.

As a psychologist reading this book, I have discovered new insights which I have already started to share with some of the people who consult me. This book contains something for all of us. The excellent discussion questions can facilitate individual reflection or honest, helpful discussion in a group.

Review by Dr Debbie Hawker


Church Times 15 January 2016

Tony Horsfall's book, also aimed at the general reader, is focused on the ways in which psalms may help us see how God is at work in "the hard places of life", longing to shape the mystery of our unfolding lives. Only when we are out of our depth, he claims, will we learn true dependency on God; and only when we have lost our way can we find the path of our own journey with God.

After three preliminary chapters to help the beginner understand psalms, the book of the psalms, and psalms of lament, Horsfall offers reflections on a selection of those psalms that contain the phrase "out of the depths". Interspersed are true personal stories that give a contemporary human face to the message of the book.

Deep Calls to Deep is a useful study book for individuals or groups. It ends with questions for discussion on each of the chapters, a classification of various psalms, and a helpful bibliography.

Canon Bruce Duncan


Book details

  • ISBN: 9781841017310
  • Published: 20 February 2015
  • Status:
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 160
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