Get Up and Eat: A Sermon on Depression

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 enoughtoo 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.

***

IMG_5390 “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.”     

Amen.

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Podcasts: Top 10

I never thought I’d say this, but I love podcasts. In recent months and years, there seems to have been an accelerating boom of podcasts, including numerous that align with my interests — and the purposes of this blog — centering around faith and/or mental health.

Here’s my current favorites, in alphabetical order because I can never bring myself to rank things:

  1. CXMH (short for “Christianity & Mental Health”) hosted by Robert Vore. Main topics: religion and mental health, featuring conversations mainly with mental health professionals.
  2. Exvangelical hosted by Blake Chastain. Main topics: religion and culture, featuring conversations mainly with “recovering evangelicals.”
  3. On Being hosted by Krista Tippett. Main topics: religion, culture, & creativity.
  4. Personality Hacker hosted by Joel Mark Witt and Antonia Dodge. Main topics: personality psychology, including MBTI and Enneagram.
  5. Queerology hosted by Matthias Roberts. Main topics: religion, sexuality, & gender, featuring conversations mainly with Christian LGBTQ advocates.
  6. The Airing of Grief hosted by Derek Webb, Kevin MacDougall, and Jamie Lee Finch. Main topics: religion, culture, & lament.
  7. The Liturgists hosted by Michael Gungor, Mike “Science Mike” McHargue, Hilary McBride, and William Matthews. Main topics: religion, culture, & science.
  8. The Social Work Podcast hosted by Dr. Jonathan Singer, LCSW. Main topics: mental health and social advocacy, featuring conversations mainly with social work professionals.
  9. Typology hosted by Ian Morgan Cron. Main topics: the Enneagram.
  10. “Where Should We Begin?” hosted by Esther Perel. Main topics: mental health and relationships, featuring live recordings of couples therapy sessions.

Note: My enjoyment of these podcasts does not imply my endorsement of the entirety of their views, content, and guest speakers.

What podcasts would you want to add to this list?!

“who leads me into life”

It was the day after Ash Wednesday, and I still didn’t know what to give up for Lent. I sat down with a spiritual director and, as I answered her initial inquiry of “How is it with your soul?” (or something equally lovely and tender), a list of stressors started spilling forth from my mouth:

“I’m a grad student,” I said, “concentrating in pastoral care. I have midterms and papers and appointments and relationships and anxiety. I’m taking classes on death, grief, trauma, disability, mental illness, injustice…and I love it, but God. I serve a little each week as an online crisis counselor. I serve at the church. There was a school shooting in Florida yesterday! There was something else the day before and will be something else again tomorrow and… And now it’s Lent and I’m supposed to reflect more on death and sacrifice?!”

Yes, I’m supposed to reflect more on death and sacrifice.

“Yes, and…” as they say in improv classes.

“Yes, and,” the spiritual director said, “Lent isn’t just about death. It’s about a slow journey from death into life. Slow like watching the sun rise on the horizon.”

What would lead you into life? she asked.

We bandied about some ideas. Creativity (in case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t exactly been posting much in the way of creative reflections here on the blog during grad school!). Community. Prayer. A cruise to the Caribbean?!

Rest, I decided.

Rest can be challenging to come by when you’re a grad student like me — and undoubtedly even more challenging when you’re a single mom or low-income worker or in plenty of other situations that I haven’t personally known. Yet I’m a strong believer that there’s ways, with some ingenuity sometimes, to integrate self-care into a busy life.

To resist the Euro-American idols of productivity, efficiency, industry, consumerism.

To care for one’s self — body, mind, and soul — because God made us and cares for us.

To rest because God rested (Gen. 2:1-3) and commanded that we do likewise (Exod. 20:8-11).

And I could go on.

Connections between self-care and Lent have been drawn for years, just in the past several years in articles by Amy Laura Hall (“On eating chocolate for Lent“), Candace Benbow (“For sisters with nothing left to give up for Lent“), and Rhonda Mawhood Lee (“Not giving up in Lent“) to name just a few.

I’ve certainly heard sound arguments against this, arguments that Lent is about self-sacrifice point-blank and that anything that could be construed as self-indulgence cannot fit under the category of self-sacrifice. For me, though, this Lent, it has been a veritable spiritual discipline to discern a slow journey from death into life. To shift some of my worried ways toward worship of God and trust in God.

Not gonna lie, my Lent this year has looked a lot like trying to use the massage chair in my university’s wellness center once a week, paint my nails once a week (to try to give up the nervous habit of picking at my nails and the skin around them), and feel a little less guilty about taking a nap or watching a TV show now and then. [Again, I recognize this is not exactly what Lent can look like for everyone. With discernment, this was simply one approach that was right and good for me at this time.]

And maybe my favorite part? Singing or humming just as often as I can the Taize chant that says “Bless the Lord my soul / and bless God’s holy name / Bless the Lord my soul / who leads me into life.”

Christians around the world will remember this week, Holy Week, the God who leads us through death and into life. Whatever your life and your Lent has been like lately, may you go with God on that journey and consider what, in your life, might lead you into life.

Voluntold: A Homily for the Feast of St. Matthias the Apostle

Offered today at the noon Eucharist at Church of the Holy Family…



Acts 1:15-26

Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus — for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us — one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.


Have you ever heard the term “voluntold”? A quick Internet search defines this word as being “forcibly volunteered,” as when “a task that was once voluntary has now been assigned to you.”

For example, you’ve volunteered for a number of years to bring food to a particular church event…and suddenly you’re practically the caterer of the event! You’ve been a member of something for a while…and suddenly you get an email with your name listed under “co-chair.” Sounds like you’ve been voluntold.

St. Matthias is, in a sense, voluntold to be among the 12 disciples, replacing Judas after Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and subsequent death. As in a military draft, Matthias gets called upon for this task and seems to respond dutifully.

How does Matthias get called? I see a two-part process.

First, even before Matthias gets called, he was there. He was showing up. Acts 1:21 describes Matthias as “one of the men who has accompanied us all this time.” He has accompanied the disciples. Not been in an “inner circle,” not been honored or promoted or elected to anything or even really mentioned in the Scriptures up to this point. If I was Matthias, I might have gotten frustrated with that sort of invisibility. But Matthias stayed faithful.

Second, even after Matthias gets called, he is faithful. The disciples put forward 2 people and cast lots between them. It sounds strange to our modern ears — casting lots. Being “voluntold” today often has a negative connotation. We might protest “Hey, I didn’t sign myself up for that!” But this is following Jesus that we’re talking about. This call, for Matthias, seems to be worth following even if it comes randomly, suddenly, unexpectedly. So, again Matthias stays faithful.

We hear in the gospel of John, chapter 15, another of today’s readings, that Jesus says to his followers, including to us: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

We’re not necessarily called to say “yes” to just anything and everything we get “voluntold” to do in this life. But if the call is from Jesus? If the call is to bear good fruit? Then may we be numbered among those who say “yes.”   

May we, following the command of our Lord Jesus Christ and the example of St. Matthias, stay faithful to notice, this day and always, how God is appointing us to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.

 

Imagination: A Sermon

A sermon offered in preaching class…


“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” ~ Ephesians 3:14-21

“Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” ~ John 6:1-14

***

Let us hear these song lyrics by singer-songwriter Bethany Dillon as a prayer today:

“I need to be reminded of who I was
When I took my first steps out the door
All I said now follows me around
I’m reminded I’m not like that anymore

I uprooted and miles behind me
Are the faces and the home I love
You’ve brought to my attention
I’m slowly changing and becoming
What I wanted to stop

Isn’t that just like a finite mind
Setting out with such righteous indignation
But now I’m at your feet
Could you look at me with some imagination”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

***

If you’re a second-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School, you’ve likely done a fair bit of reflecting recently. Last week, we submitted our middler reviews. Some of us had a required Field Ed reflection on Friday afternoon.

As for me, I wound up reflecting at one point all the way back to when I visited Duke as a prospective student two years ago. To who I was “when I took my first steps out the door,” as we prayed a moment ago. I already had a couple friends who were current students here, so the night before my actual campus visit I met up with these friends for dinner. They spoke so naturally about their assignments and something they called precepts and used terminology that I’m still not always sure how to pronounce much less use. Before I went to bed that night, I googled the term “impostor syndrome,” read about it, and nodded. “Persistent fear of being ‘not good enough’ or being exposed as a fraud.”

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

Yes, according to Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, our God is a God of imagination. Taking something and seeing something more. A God of “breadth and length and height and depth” exceeding what even my best Vacation Bible School-style hand movements could express. You know, “deep and wide, deep and wide,” a river flowing deep and wide.

In Paul’s language, our God is a God of love “that surpasses knowledge.” A God of power “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” A God of bread and wine that is impossibly the body and blood of Christ. And, in our gospel lesson today, a God of plain old loaves and fish that is a feast for all.

***

Imagine this story for a minute through the eyes of the disciples. It’s the end of the work day. You’re tired. You’re trying to sit by the sea, put your feet up with your co-workers, and take a break.

But your whole community and then some is showing up with questions and curiosities for your boss, Jesus. He says to serve them, to feed them. All of them.

You want to do what your supervisor says of course, but at the same time you’re thinking, well…a) I’m off the clock, Jesus. C’mon, really? b) That’s not possible, Jesus. Really?

It would be much too expensive to care for them all. Six months’ income would still barely do anything, one of the disciples says.

A kid here has five loaves of bread and two fish, another disciple says, just stating the facts, but what difference does that make?

Six months’ income. Five loaves. Two fish. Five thousand people. You’d make a pretty good finance committee, disciples, and there’s a time and place for that for sure. But what can you do with that budget? Moreover, what can Jesus do for the people?

Jesus takes that bread and fish, the most ordinary thing of the earth and most ordinary thing of the sea, and he tells the whole clamoring crowd to sit down. He gives thanks. Thanks for the real substances in his hands, the really large crowd gathered around, and maybe even the realism of the disciples. And it’s as though he too says,

But now I’m at your feet

Would you look at me with some imagination?

*** 

When Paul looked at Jesus with some imagination, his writing style seriously showed it. Good writing teachers usually warn against using too many superlatives. A preceptor might dock points from Paul’s last sentence in our passage today: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.”

Abundantly. Far. More.

This is excessive wordiness, the editor in me wants to say.

This is impossible hopefulness, the skeptic in me wants to say.

And at the same time…this is an abundant Jesus, the Spirit in me has to admit.

Because Jesus not only provided for the five thousand – as if that wasn’t miracle enough – but satisfied the five thousand. Such that the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. In this way, Jesus saw what little there was to work with at the outset, saw that it could be enough, and indeed saw that it could be more than enough.

Abundantly far more than enough to work even within, among, and through us today. In our imaginations and, for us as students, our educations and vocations. Seeing realistically what is and seeing hopefully what could be.

See, as I reflected last week, amidst the flurry of portfolios and Field Ed reflections, I remembered myself as a prospective student, yes, but I also imagined myself as prospective…pastor? I could sort of picture it because on a recent Sunday, serving at my Field Ed church, I had wound up serving the Communion bread – a responsibility in my Episcopal tradition that’s revered and reserved quite strictly for the ordained clergy or if absolutely necessary laypeople serving with specific clerical permission. This particular Sunday, my church had fewer clergy there than usual, so at the very last minute a priest with a panicked look on her face handed me a piece of bread and told me, “you’re it.” Like a holy game of tag.

I don’t want to be it, I thought, as I shuffled down the chancel steps toward the congregation, white robes billowing at my sides. I’m not prepared to be ‘it.’ I’m just an intern. Just a student. Just uhh…What do I say now? I thought, as a line of parishioners approached. The bread of…the body…the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

Just a kid with five loaves and two fish.

But now I’m at your feet.

God, could you look at me with some imagination?

*** 

God, could you look at this classroom as a room of preachers? Could you look at this school as a bustling kitchen preparing loaves and fish, even if they sometimes look like papers and projects? Could you take what very little gifts we have to offer, give thanks, and distribute them to others so that people could say as the gospel writer did that “this [this Jesus Christ] is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

God can. And has. Will you?