As Mental Health Month draws to an end…here’s a sermon on depression that I offered toward the end of my preaching class Fall 2017. I don’t suppose it’s perfect, but I do believe it reflects something of God, God’s Word, and God’s activity in my life.
A reading from 1 King 19:1-8.
“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.”
The Word of God for the people of God.
It sounds strange even to me, but when I was a teenager, this passage from 1 Kings 19 was one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Honestly, I think I opened a concordance one day out of curiosity, looked up the word “depression,” and there it was. That’s the only way I can imagine coming across this story, because I don’t remember hearing it preached on or taught anywhere in particular. I certainly don’t remember it being in my colorful children’s Bible. Talking about what amounts to suicidal thoughts isn’t exactly something we’re likely to do in our churches, in our pulpits, in our lives.
But it’s in the Bible. And, I thank God for that.
See, when I was a teenager, I was slowly starting to figure out how to live with chronic clinical depression. Showing symptoms by the time I was 14, diagnosed at 18, and managing bouts of different durations and difficulties off and on ever since. Journeying periodically into the wilderness like Elijah and laying down under a broom tree – or, more likely, under my bedcovers – and sometimes, just sometimes, wanting to die.
Church seemed to have nothing to say to this experience – or at least nothing helpful, nothing sustainable. Church, to me, seemed to be about singing joyful songs and hearing about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and so on. When I wasn’t experiencing those things? I was ashamed to say so…so I just wouldn’t.
The Bible, though, when we really look into it, gets incredibly honest and allows us to do the same. The Bible, in this story from the life of the prophet Elijah, spoke of my depression – even when no one else would – and gave me a holy permission to experience my depression, talk to God about it, and try to seek God in it.
Let’s take a closer look at how Elijah does this – how he encounters the Lord in his despair.
First things first, Elijah tells God about the despair. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”
This is a very serious thing for a person to say, and I want to acknowledge that. I want to acknowledge that some of you, your loved ones, or your parishioners or CPE patients may have said, are saying, or will say something like Elijah has said. I want to acknowledge, in fact, that someone in your life may have died by suicide.
That someone who has passed away is not to be condemned but is loved by God, now and forever. They are not terrible; rather, at some point in life they felt terrible. It’s important to remember that, according to recent psychological literature, suicidal thoughts and actions tend to come to a person not so much because death sounds good but because life, at least for the time being, feels very, very bad. In a very real way, the person’s brain perceives that they’ve had enough – too much – to carry in life and the brain can’t conceive of carrying any more.
And so the prayer of Elijah comes: I’ve had enough, Lord. Take it all away.
How does the Lord respond?
I notice God responding to Elijah in this story with persistence and provision.
An angel of the Lord – a mysterious but palpable, present being – comes to visit Elijah. Maybe not unlike a pastoral visit to an isolated parishioner.
What’s more, the angel comes twice – with food.
With the angel’s help, Elijah’s healing process consists of two surprisingly simple things: eat and sleep. Sounds nice, right? Sounds like what we students are going to do a lot of once finals are over.
But, really, these instructions are deeply significant. The Bible is full of images of eating and sleeping – especially eating. These are two of life’s most fundamental day-to-day needs. And two of depression’s most common difficulties, whether in the form of eating or sleeping too much or too little.
Most health professionals will say that changes in sleeping and eating are two of the key symptoms of depression. And, honestly, I’ll tell you that this couldn’t be truer. During a bout of depression one Saturday some years ago, I spent hours struggling to get out of bed – only to spend almost an hour in my kitchen cutting an apple and finding some peanut butter so that I’d have something to eat. If only an angel had placed that apple and peanut butter by my head!
It’s hard, but I’ve heard it said before: When you’re not sure what to do next, just do the next right thing.
Sleep. Eat. The next right thing. And the next and the next. Little by little. With God’s persistence. With God’s provision.
The Reverend Kathryn Greene-McCreight has illustrated this well. Rev. Kathryn is an Episcopal priest, chaplain at Yale University, and writer who has documented her personal experiences with Christian faith and mental illness. In her 2015 memoir Darkness Is My Only Companion, Rev. Kathryn describes being hospitalized and instructed, while on the ward, to set one simple goal for herself every day. She writes:
“My goal was always to say the Daily Office, something that took at most only twenty-five minutes twice a day in the ‘real world.’ In the hospital and in my ill brain it took most of the day. This lent new meaning to the phrase ‘Daily Office.’ Reading the Psalms, collects, Scripture, and prayers was nearly impossible. Concentration was no longer a faculty I possessed. Each word seemed to swim in front of my eyes. But I was determined…”
As hard it was, Rev. Kathryn was determined, like Elijah, to tell God of her despair. To receive God’s provision of a simple thing like Daily Office prayer and to receive God’s persistence of a repeated thing like Daily Office prayer.
Such a simple and repeated practice, like the regularity with which we eat meals or perhaps in our churches eat the Great Meal of Communion, has the capacity to meet a weary soul right where we are and nourish us body, mind, and soul.
“Get up and eat,” says the angel to Elijah.
“Get up and eat,” say our pastors and priests Sunday after Sunday. Eat and drink of Christ’s body and blood.
The Eucharist is salvation writ small, placed into our hands, brought into our bodies. The Eucharist is chief among the spiritual practices that sustain us when we cannot possibly sustain ourselves. That offer us bite-size portions of life when we think – and even wish – that life should be no more.
Meals of all kinds – small and big – can do that. The Thanksgiving meal that many of us experienced last week. The meals that we might bring over to someone’s house when they’re recovering, grieving, or otherwise struggling. Even the snacks that we share in this preaching class. They keep us going.
To be clear, though, I’m not saying here that food – including spiritual food like Communion or like prayer in general – cures depression. Not at all. What I am saying is that God uses surprising, simple, and tangible things to meet us right where we are. To meet Elijah in the wilderness. To meet me in the pages of 1 Kings 19. Giving us physical and spiritual food.
“Get up and eat. Otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Get up and eat, friends, whether you are joyous, stressed, depressed, or somewhere in between. Get up and eat physically and spiritually. Receive the food of God’s angels in your own life … and likewise offer sustenance to others as God’s angels in their lives.
“Get up and eat. Otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”