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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Sacrament at the Soul of Me

I grew up at a Baptist church receiving Communion seemingly whenever the senior pastor felt like offering it, which probably amounted to once a quarter. Ushers would pass heavy silver trays up and down the pews — a tray of wafers followed by a tray of little, thimble-sized plastic cups of grape juice. It seemed like snack time to my seven-year-old sensibilities.

06-2015-laity-lodge-02I don’t know exactly when the sacrament became something more than snack time. But it certainly has.

When I visited and joined an Episcopal church at age 22, I started receiving Communion once a week. It was the focal point of the Sunday service, as opposed to the music or sermon, which I have seen centralized and even quite frankly sensationalized in some settings.

When I interned at and worked at that Episcopal church, I started receiving Communion multiple times a week, because the parish offered the sacrament typically every Monday-Friday in conjunction with morning prayer.

Eventually, I started hungering for it. Just a few months ago, when I was away from home and from my home church one Sunday,  I noticed the hungering for it and semi-jokingly told a friend traveling with me: “I think I’m having Eucharist withdrawal!”

It’s not a physical hunger. Because, let’s be real; that’s best satiated with some Sunday brunch after church.

It’s a spiritual hunger. The hungry searching of a weary swimmer grasping for a buoy. The “hangry” searching of a tired traveler scanning airport corridors for some trustworthy sustenance. Subway and Starbucks are my airport go-tos. Bread and wine are my life’s go-tos.    

The comparison of Eucharist to fast food chains is a pale comparison indeed. But what I mean is this: it’s a source of constancy. I remember the relief of finding a Subway at the Toronto airport during a layover once, tucked away among all the unfamiliarities of poutine and ketchup-flavored potato chips. I remember the warm comfort of sipping Starbucks at the Charlotte airport during many a layover when I used to travel periodically between Texas and Virginia. Travel where I may, these edible anchors would be there, offering much the same menu each time and at each location.

Having recently moved halfway across the country, I find that Communion is an edible anchor too, offering “much the same menu” upon each reception. Maybe a thin, round wafer or a piece of sweet, soft bread. Maybe juice, usually wine. Always “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

When I receive nowadays, I go back to my seat and might recall fondly other times I have received. I might recall a quiet Jesuit retreat center in North Texas or an Anglican mission church in Belize. I might recall that home parish that first taught me to cherish Communion, glance at my watch, and realize that even across time zones they’re eating and drinking of the same body and blood at about this same time.

I might recall the time last summer when my grandma’s 94th birthday was approaching and I arranged to give her Communion for her birthday. As I told my mentor-priest: She really doesn’t need anything else, and I really can’t offer anything else. So, come Sunday, she wheeled her walker into the sanctuary, sat on the edge of a pew, fell asleep twice during the sermon (sorry, preacher), and watched as I served the chalice to countless parishioners more ambulatory than herself. Finally, a priest gestured to me to follow him out to the pew where Grandma sat. He leaned over, handed her “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” and stepped back into the aisle. I stepped forward, making eye contact with this white-haired woman of God who has thus far been around all my life but who cannot possibly continue to be around all my life. I held out “the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” she warily dipped her wafer in, and promptly dropped it. I looked at my priest, who shrugged, and I fished the wine-soaked wafer out of the chalice and placed it in her thin, receptive hands.

Later, we laughed about the awkwardness of that Communion.

Much later, I would cry about the gift of that Communion.

When so many things change, move, age, and even pass away, the Lord does not. For me, Communion attests to this.

Because, a thousand miles away from some of my closest family and friends, the continuity of Communion over time and space tells me that the Lord provides for those family and friends. I have done and will keep doing all that I humanly can to care for them, but ultimately the Lord will provide. And, Communion tells me that the Lord provides for me too. Travel where I may, this edible anchor will be there. Thanks be to God.    

In a Foreign Land

“How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” – Psalm 137:4

IMG_3085I recently moved to the foreign land of North Carolina. To be sure, I am no Israelite in exile, for I chose to move here of my own free will, accompanied by all the familiar belongings that would fit in my car, a few familiar faces, and countless familiar chain restaurants (God bless Cracker Barrel).

But there is a foreign-ness to be faced nonetheless. New roads to roam, grocery stores and gas stations and pharmacies to track down, and — most interestingly in my opinion — churches to visit. Churches that remind me of home just enough to turn my slightly-homesick heart into a gumbo of gratitude and grief over what was and is and is no longer in my life at this point in time. Churches that make me wonder: “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

Apparently, we shall check and double-check church websites, take the wrong exit off the highway, arrive nearly ten minutes late, and eventually slip into the back pew.

We shall study the bulletin and juggle it with the hymnal, Book of Common Prayer, and Bible with all the clumsiness of a court jester.

We shall see a bespectacled gentleman who reminds us of our own beloved priest back home and a young family with two boisterous blonde boys who remind us of a young family back home — a family that almost always sat in the pew in front of us, their own boisterous blonde boys squirming and saying “peas be with you” at the appropriate time.

We shall close our eyes and click the heels of our Sunday shoes three times, thinking “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

We shall receive bread into our open hands and wine to our waiting lips and think, first, like a pouting three-year-old that it tastes nothing like we’re used to and, second, that it feels everything like we’re used to — like sitting as we do so many Sundays “at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all” (Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion).

We shall be grateful for that bread and wine, that one old hymn we recognized, that one priest who offered a handshake and a helpful “Hi, are you new here?” on the way out.

We shall drink coffee and meet parishioners, who in turn introduce us to more parishioners, whose names we can’t keep straight and who make us long for the many names and lives we know (knew?) so well back home.

Finally, we shall drive home wondering what home even means.

And, if we listen we shall hear Jesus say:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

We who are homesick, who wander and wonder, who miss things and mourn things — we shall be home with Christ and in Christ both now and forever.