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.

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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.

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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.

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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.      

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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.

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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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From the Other Side

Some months ago, I had a bout of depression. Only I didn’t fully realize it until the bout was fully over. 

I had had some stresses and disappointments fall into my lap as the fall season settled in and the days got shorter and darker and colder (which never helps when it comes to matters of mood). But, I made up my mind to manage it like the Gilmore girls – wallow for a weekend and move on. Then, one weekend of oversleeping and binge-watching Netflix and binge-eating my now trademark brownie in a mug turned into one week, then two, then a month, and so on.

I remember talking to a pastor friend in his office one day and crying (which is weird, because I’m not a crier) and saying, “I’m not interested in anything lately. Not work, not church, not reading, nothing. And that’s terrifying.”

It’s terrifying to know that you feel 100% not like yourself. That, on the contrary, a lazy, lifeless alien seems to have taken up residence within you.

As soon as I identified this particular terror, my pastor friend replied matter-of-factly: “You’re depressed.” And, even though I’ve known for years that I have chronic depression and know the symptoms and know some of the triggers, this simple statement surprised me. It may always be jarring to have someone stop and see your condition for what it really is and say so.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong,” I said defensively, “I’m still going to work and church and all. I’m doing what I’ve gotta do.” (This is sometimes called high-functioning depression, I’ve learned.)

He shook his head. “I don’t want to see you just surviving. I want us to get you thriving.”

We wondered together for a few minutes what it would take to get me thriving. And I wonder now, from the other side of the depression, what in fact it took to get me thriving – as I have been, gratefully, for months now – and what it could take for others like me and maybe like you to get through this too.

grass_is_greenerFrom the other side, I see that, as St. Augustine writes in his Confessions: “Time does not stand still, nor are the rolling seasons useless to us, for they work wonders in our minds. They came and went from day to day, and by their coming and going implanted in me other hopes and other memories. Little by little they sent me toward things that had earlier delighted me, and before these my sorrow began to give ground.”

From the other side, I see that at least three things stand in the valley between me and my depression like great, calm shields.

From the other side, I see purpose peeking through in the work God has called me to do. Purpose in the co-workers or clients or customers I could meet, the goods and services we could exchange, the relationships we could form, the daily little impacts we could make on the world, the bits of beauty we could build in the world.

I see people who love me and are loved by me. People like the pastor friend who let me cry in his office. The therapist who asked annoying questions and got on my nerves but helped a little, I have to admit. The housemates who patiently lived with Depression for a couple months – and even made her laugh sometimes – rather than living with their usual roommate. In that passage from Augustine’s Confessions that I just quoted, it’s rather hard to tell (at least in English translations) what “they” refers to. It comes in the context of Augustine talking quite a bit about the consolation he received from friends, a consolation that helped him through a time of great grief. And I would agree with him that friends “came and went from day to day, and by their coming and going implanted in me other hopes and other memories.” They reminded me who I am, what I love, what I hope for – and even, when hope seemed hard for me, what they hoped for me.

Finally, from the other side of depression, I see prayer happening. Prayers of others carrying me through, whether I realized it or not (because most of the time I didn’t realize it). Prayers of the saints who wrote the psalter and the Book of Common Prayer and heavy, pleading Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Immanuel” that helped me plead for Christ’s presence right along with them. And, finally, prayers of my own sneaking slowly back into the sleepless nights and the sleepy mornings, the healing of Lent and the healed-ness of Easter – seasons that quite literally paralleled the progression of my depression this year.

As Donald Miller says in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, “it’s as though God is saying, ‘Write a good story, take somebody with you, and let me help.’”

If you or someone you know lives with depression, if you’re right in the thick of it and can’t even fathom the other side, hear that with me: Find purpose in your story. Take people with you. And let God help.

From the other side of depression, I promise: It will get better. It takes time. But it will get better.

De-mystifying Antidepressants, Part II: An Artist’s Perspective

After Waiting For GodotTreating my depression will make me boring.”

I’ve heard friends and students say this plenty of times, and might have thought it myself.

Why do we equate medicine with mediocrity? Why do we think more health could mean less talent?

Maybe because of what I’ll call “Sylvia Plath syndrome.” We learn in English class that Sylvia Plath (or another writer, painter, or musician) struggled with mental illness and ultimately took her own life. As we progress through the Norton anthology, we find various manifestations of despair to be a theme.

The literary theme of despair, if not perceived correctly, could be understood as prescriptive (“Writers must be depressed”). This can make us think of depression as an image to maintain. It’s more accurate, however, to take a descriptive view (“Some writers are depressed”). This lets us think of depression as an illness to manage.

In fact, I would argue, it’s an illness that we must manage.

Fiction writer, Elizabeth Moon, has said:

“Speaking from experience (several bouts of clinical depression), I can guarantee that depression beyond the very mildest level … destroys creativity–and that treating depression enhances it. Why? Well, depression doesn’t just make you miserable. When you’re depressed, you have no energy–and writing books takes hard work, which takes energy. When you’re depressed, you find it hard to start new things (like books, chapters, the day’s work), and hard to make decisions (like which book, or which character, or even which way Albert will turn when he leaves the throne room…) When you’re depressed, everything seems futile–you are sure the book will be lousy even if you do write it.”

Psychologically, as Moon says, treatment can improve energy, initiative, concentration, and outlook — which, in turn, can improve the quantity of an artist’s output.

Artistically, too, treatment does not have any notably negative impact on the quality of an artist’s output. When I hear the suggestion that “antidepressants will make me boring,” here’s what I’ve decided to recommend:

  • You can write about topics other than depression. Believe it or not, it’s true! Just consider the sections of a typical newspaper; you can write about current events, sports, food, the arts, religion, you name it.
  • You can write about getting treatment. Write a memoir about your first visit to a therapist, a short story about a character who discovers a unique self-care strategy, or a poem about your pills (not glamorizing them or demonizing them…just describing them).
  • You can write about depression and pursue joy. Because, newsflash, depression and joy are not mutually exclusive. You can have both. As Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower puts it: “I am both happy and sad, and I’m still trying to figure out how that can be.” You might use writing to figure out how that can be.

None of those topics are boring. On the contrary, they’re interesting, they’re likely therapeutic for the writer to write, and they’re likely eye-opening for readers to read.

So, to the depressed artist: go ahead and heal. There’s too much life to be lived — and, yes, to be written about — to let a manageable illness hold you back.

De-mystifying Antidepressants, Part I: Redefining Recovery

Fact: I’ve been on antidepressants off and on for 5 years now and concluded about a year ago — at my doctor’s recommendation — that I’ll be on them indefinitely.

Why? Because, left to its own devices, my body consistently decides to create a knot in my stomach, a lot of annoying thoughts in my head, a lack of interest in activities I characteristically enjoy, trouble concentrating during the day, and trouble sleeping at night. In my experience, antidepressants — combined with crucial, less medicinal approaches like self-care, social support, and sometimes therapy — have virtually removed my aforementioned symptoms. 

As helpful as antidepressants had been, I never expected to stay on them indefinitely.   

When my doctor suggested this, my first reaction was to nervously inquire: “Does this mean I’ll never recover…?”

The doc thought for a second, leaned forward, and said, “Depends on how you define recovery.”

If I define recovery as having the condition out of my life and the prescriptions out of my medicine cabinet, then no I might never recover. If I define recovery, however, as “regaining strength, composure, balance, or the like,” then yes I actually have recovered!   

We’re used to thinking of “recovery” as a removal of illness. And this works for common conditions such as the flu, which can be addressed with perhaps a 10-day round of antibiotics. But, oftentimes, depression and other mental health conditions are more like diabetes than the flu; they’re chronic conditions that need continued attention. “Recovery,” in this case, must be understood as a resolve toward wellness

For years, I tried to remove my illness rather than resolving toward wellness, fearing that continued medication usage would somehow compromise my creativity or my religious faith. Unfortunately, stigma crops up in any and every community, discouraging us from seeking help because we assume doing so could affect our character or reputation in some negative way. The stigmas that affected me most:     

Stigma among creatives: “Medication will make me ‘dull.'” “Antidepressants will take away my writing material.”

Stigma among Christians: “Taking medication would be altering the way God made me.” “Taking medication would mean I don’t trust God to heal me.”  

If you’ve ever thought one of those sentiments, trust me: You’re not alone. There’s a real conversation to be had about each of those points. Talk to a doctor, therapist, religious leader (especially regarding stigma among Christians), or any other trusted adult. In addition, follow along as I process these stigmas a bit in my next 2 blogs! (Sneak preview: I’m going to argue that none of the stigmas I named above are valid reasons to not take antidepressants.)

Whatever you do, start thinking of recovery as a resolve toward wellness and know that you can recover. It might not look like what you expected. But you can. 

Prayers for Mental Health

I love that the Book of Common Prayer has specific prayers and thanksgivings for just about anything — for travelers, for artists, for the unemployed, for the aged, and so on. But, I don’t see many prayers looking closely at mental health. So, I decided to write a few.

For a Person Experiencing Anxiety

Heavenly Father, you know what we need. Teach us, when we worry about all manner of things, to seek first your kingdom and your righteousness and to find that all these things will be added unto us. Calm the churnings of our minds and bodies, as you calmed the sea, so that we might know your grace and spread forth your peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For a Person Considering Self-Harm

Almighty God, you created us and called us good. When there is guilt, grant us grace; when there is self-loathing, love; when there is loneliness, communion with you and with our neighbors. Guide us to care for our bodies as tenderly as you did wash the feet of the disciples; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

For a Person Considering Suicide

Lord Christ, who faced death fully and rose to new life, enter into our thoughts of death and breathe into them life. Restore to us assurance of your good plans and purpose for our lives, grant us courage and resources to seek help, and prepare those who might help us; that we might continue to live for you, who did prepare for us in advance good works to do through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I hope these prayers could be words of comfort for individuals who wrestle with mental disorders, which can all too often leave us at a loss for words to say — much less words to pray.

Moreover, I hope you might try to write your own prayers for the concerns that you or your loved ones face. I found it to be a very challenging and very rewarding experience, especially since I tried to follow the traditional pattern of collects, which goes:

  1. invocation of God as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit
  2. acknowledgement of a divine attribute related to the petition
  3. petition for a specific needs/s
  4. aspiration (the desired result)
  5. conclusion

 

If you write one or find an interesting one written, let me know!