Category Archives: depression

Letter 47: To L- What I Cannot Say Sunday

I am writing you now ahead of our meeting because I doubt I will get a chance to say much to you privately, and much of what I want to say will not fit the sort of things I expect will be said at that time.  You will hear much about faith, and God’s promises, and God’s power, and God’s love, but very little of His mystery.

I have no idea what it’s like to have your disease, nor do I know you well enough to guess what you might be thinking.  I do know suffering, however.  I have battled what I now know to be Depression for much of my life.  It can manifest itself as bouts of fear and anxiety, but mostly it is just a slow dripping faucet of inner gloom.  There have been times when the sense of pain has been overwhelming.  I would like to say that I prayed and it ended, but it didn’t.  This appears to be something I am going to have to live with, and some days I do better with it than others.

I believe God can and does heal, but not always.  Too many people I’ve prayed for have not gotten well for me to say otherwise.

When I was a teenager, a girl in your youth group was diagnosed with cancer.  We prayed, hard.  We prayed in tongues as well as in English.  Within the fashions of the time, we did everything we were supposed to do, and yet she died.  That has stayed with me all these years.  Nothing was said about it afterwards.  The church had put in all this effort and energy, and when it did not yield the desired results, we dropped it and walked away as if nothing had happened.

It doesn’t fit with our message.  We want success, and success is healing.  We are told to pray in faith, to pray in tongues, to pray out loud– as an aside, have you ever noticed that most guides to prayer get down to “How to Get What You Want From God”?  Jesus Himself tells us to pray constantly, to batter Heaven with our request.  Yet He also tells us there is no need for endless repetition, and that faith the size of a mustard seed will prevail.  I’m not sure which one applies.

This is not a new problem, of course.  When you get to your required philosophy course in college, and I hope you take one, you will learn that it goes by the name, “The Problem of Evil.”  “If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does evil occur?”  This is one of the central questions of the Job.  If you re-read it, you’ll notice God never answers Job’s question about why all of this happened to him.  Yet Job ends the book satisfied.  He has seen God, and that was enough.

We’re supposed to be cheerful and confident under such trying circumstances, but I want to assure you that it’s okay if you’re not.  I can even understand if you want to tell off God.  I have, on occasion.  He’s big enough to handle it.  It’s interesting that for all his complaints to God, God does not rebuke Job.  God does, however, rebuke Job’s friends for their efforts to defend God.  Take comfort from this in the trying times.

All of this is a very long way of saying that I will be praying for your healing Sunday, as I have been for some time, but I will also be praying that He will strengthen you, and open you up to His mystery.

From your work in television, you know that the characters on screen are to carry on unaware that there is a soundstage enveloping them.  They are in the moment of their story, and the goings on outside of that are hidden from them.  So it is with us.

God means to build saints, and there is a whole story going on to achieve this that lies just outside our vision.  Much of it will make little sense until we reach our journey’s end.  We have Christ as our Guide and token, He who died to rise again and prepare a place for us where there shall be no more tears and no more night.

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Letter 44: The Christmas Earthquake

While stuck in traffic due to highway constructions, I was reflecting on some of the Advent readings my wife and I have done for our morning devotions.

Isaiah 40 is one of the classic texts announcing the coming of Christ, and it is full of terrifying imagery.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:3-5 KJV)

The thought occurred to me that Isaiah is describing an earthquake.  How else might the mountains and hills be made low, and the valleys exalted?  We use bulldozers and steamrollers to make the rough places a plain, forcibly moving earth, conforming it to our will.  This is what God is accomplishing in Christ.

Mary’s song echoes this sense of upheaval:

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. (Book of Common Prayer, after Luke 1:46-55)

 

Old Simeon, too,  senses the turmoil God is unleashing on the world.  ‘And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”’ (Luke 2:34-35 ESV)

In still another Advent reading, John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17 ESV, see also Matt. 3:11-13)

It seems strange that we can read these passages year after year, and completely miss the unsettling message.  God is about to upset everything.  We shall be forcibly reordered to comply with His will.  Christ comes to save, to comfort, to heal, and to winnow.  That we should be brought low for the glory of God never seems to make it to our Christmas messages.   No wonder God intersperses these states with words of comfort, and the exhortation to be not afraid.

In olden times, Christmas celebrations captured something of this tumult.  It was the time of year to remind the world of Christ’s second coming.  The Twelve Days of Christmas were often marked by the rule of the Boy Bishop or the Lord of Misrule, as the last were made first, and the first last.  After Epiphany, the old order reasserted itself, and life went on as it always has, but we were given this glimpse that something could be different, indeed, we were told that one day it would be different.

This sense of disruption carries into the very person of Christ.  He is born King of the Jews, yet there all the power of the universe lay in that manger, helpless and small, soiled in His own excrement, unable to hold up even His own head.  He existed as both God and Man in one indivisible person, an offense to the minds of Greek and Jew alike.  He would, in the end, most greatly demonstrate his power by submitting to the power of others.

This is what He offers us.  Are we willing to be upended?  When Christ came, though much and long expected, most people missed Him entirely.  Would I do likewise?  We pride ourselves on our ability to know all about God, and how to recognize Him.  But are we any different?  He comes to upset the status quo, to shake the earth, and we do not wish ourselves to be shaken.

Christmas is perhaps the most realistic religious holiday of them all.  If the story is told straight, Christmas posits that we inhabit a world filled with profound darkness and death.  For all our yearning for hope and change, they elude us.  But, there is grounds for and unlikely hope.  God Himself has intervened to set the whole of Creation to rights.  Christmas commingles joy and sorrow and invites nothing but trouble because it ends in a world without tears or night or temple, for the dwelling of God shall be with Man.

J.S. Bach concludes his Christmas Oratorio with a stirring chorale, “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen.”  The music is triumphant with trumpets sounding and tympani’s thundering, echoing the words of victory and vengeance.  As you listen closely, the tune is familiar, and entirely out of place.  It’s the “Passion Chorale.”  This is the point of Christmas.  This is the foundation of our Hope.  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  Amen.

Bach: Christmas Oratorio Finale

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Letter 34: To Those Who Wait in the Dark

Today was one of those strange days.  My wife suffered a depressive episode.  It was an odd reversal.  As she talked about what she was feeling, she suddenly paused and asked me, “Is this what you feel like?”  I had to tell her, yes, that is what it feels like, and that is what you’re going through right now.

For me, the painful part was knowing that she was suffering, and wanting to do something about it.  I wanted to lift her spirits, to get her out of the dingy, grey pit into which she had fallen.  But I couldn’t think of anything.  So, we went for a drive, enjoyed the sunshine, and got a bite to eat.  We talked some.  I tried to listen, but mostly I said nothing.  There was a lot of silence.

As wrong as it seems, that helped.  I would have thought that a more active effort would have yielded results.  Get her mind off of things.  Encourage her.  Get her to see that the troubles oppressing her were small indeed.  I would have thought that I could draw upon my own experiences to help her.

But maybe she didn’t need help.  Looking at it now, I think that what she needed was for me to be there.

My Old Testament professor told us that Job’s friends went wrong the moment they opened their mouths.  If only they had kept silent and kept witness.

Our desire to do something I think says more about us.  The focus comes off the one suffering to what we can do.  Being present cedes the initiative.  You watch, and wait.  Perhaps more will be asked of you, perhaps not.

waiting-cat_00446090May I not tire in the waiting, O Lord.

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Letter 32: I Am One Acquainted with the Night

Night-Driving-Synchroblog

“I have been one acquainted with the night.”

-Robert Frost (1874-1963)

I am writing this as a part of Addie Zierman’s synchro-blog in support of her new book. I have not read it, but many pieces on her blog have resonated with me, including this challenge: “What have you learned from the dark?

Darkness is familiar to me. Not quite an old friend, perhaps, but certainly an acquaintance of long standing. Many days I wish it weren’t so, but thus far, God has been content to keep us close. I suffer from depression, and probably have for years. I have been on mediation for twenty years, and it did not go well when I tried to not take them.

Like many, I found the religious culture of my youth inadequate to address the darkness. I was told to pray more, to seek deliverance, or claim freedom from the spirit of depression, as if I were demon-possessed. I ended up at a Christian college on a scholarship for Christian leadership, not certain I believed in God.

Here, then, is the first lesson I learned in the dark: God is there, too. Far from a static object of our quest or adoration, or indeed, some great, divine, Sugar Daddy, God is present and at work always, in the dark, as much as in the light. Graham Greene’s semi-autobiographical novel, The End of the Affair, uses its title as a pun. It is about the end of an affair conducted by the narrator, but as the story unfolds, we see the second meaning: the narrator slowly becomes aware that he is being silently, but relentlessly pursued by a Divine Lover, who will not rest until He possesses him, body and soul. That is certainly the God I found, or rather that found me, in the dark.

My act of teenaged rebellion was becoming Presbyterian, for I found myself connecting more with the older liturgies of the church. Light and Dark play an important role, and we are beginning Holy Week, when this is played out in dramatic fashion. During the course of the Tenebrae service on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, one by one the lights of the church go out until, with the loud cry of “It is finished!” the sanctuary goes completely dark.

The darkness continues until Easter. For three days Christ lay in the darkness of the tomb. Like the Disciples, we wait. The wait can seem long and hard. But even in the darkness, unseen and unfelt, Christ is at work. I am the grass. Let me work.

As the story of Christ “ends” in darkness, so it begins. In Advent, we start in darkness and silence. The minister strikes a match, it hisses and sizzles to life, piercing the darkness, as it moves to a candle, wavers and catches, spreading the light. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” the minister intones, quoting the words of Isaiah 9:2, “they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

We need darkness to see the light. It is part of the cycle of life. In human terms, we rest when it’s dark. And perhaps in our darkness, God is calling us to rest, too. We find it so hard. We cannot see, and any action is as likely to end in a collision or a stumbling. We can only trust the God who hides in light as well as dark. We are at an end of ourselves, and it is terrifying.

Yet we are not alone. The other lesson I have learned is that there are others in the darkness. Some have passed before, others are with us now, and we need them. God connects us in the darkness in ways that He cannot in the light. We wrestle with God, and like Jacob, we bear the marks, and we can spot a fellow survivor. Those who have accompanied us into the darkness will stick with us in the light.

Our days consist of darkness and light. Any practice of faith that will only recognize one is incomplete at best, and false at worst. And there was evening, and there was morning, and so it goes.

I love old hymns. At their best, they hold a richness of faith and experience. And so, as I close, an evening hymn seems most apt.

All praise to thee, my God, this night, for all the blessings of the light! Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, beneath thine own almighty wings.

Forgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son, the ill that I this day have done, that with the world, myself, and thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.

Teach me to live, that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die, that so I may rise glorious at the judgment day.

O may my soul on thee repose, and with sweet sleep mine eyelids close, sleep that may me more vigorous make to serve my God when I awake.

When in the night I sleepless lie, My soul with heavenly thoughts supply; Let no ill dreams disturb my rest, No powers of darkness me molest.

O when shall I, in endless day, For ever chase dark sleep away, And hymns divine with angels sing, All praise to thee, eternal King?

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow; praise him, all creatures here below; praise him above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

-Thomas Ken (1637-1711)

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