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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“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.

Good Gifts

February, for me, has been full of good gifts.Gifts pic

I celebrated a birthday, which came with some literal little gifts, as birthdays often do.

Got accepted to two graduate school programs to pursue a Master’s in Theology. (Decisions and details pending. Prayers appreciated.)

Attended a lecture on faith and the arts by Dr. Jeremy Begbie at St. Matthew’s Cathedral Arts and a discussion on cultivating creativity with Dr. Greg Garrett at Union Coffee.

Discussed race and gender with young adults at Church of the Incarnation and considered how, in the baptismal covenant, Christians vow to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

My head has been happy to scribble notes, to sip knowledge. Happy — and yet heavy, almost, like a sponge that needs to be wrung out and rested.

Which is why I also thank God that, this month, I played Bingo at a retirement home.

Built a Lego house with a 6-year-old.

Ate several snowed-in meals of soup or spaghetti with my roommates, still in our pajamas at noon and satisfied to just spend time together.

Received ashes on my forehead last week, hearing the injunction to “remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”

We all need these reminders, from time to time, that there is more to life — more simplicity to life — than the swirlings in our heads. I know I do. I need to remember that I have this fragile body that will not last forever and will get bronchitis if I don’t take care of it (that happened this month too) and yet will be able to do and make some good things if I do take care of it. This fragile body that is a good gift from God, able by His grace to give and receive good gifts to and from all the people around me.  

Maybe it’s as simple as that. Give. Receive. Good.

First-Week Fatigue

Calendar ScreenshotFirst week of school. First week of a new job. The first week of a new experience almost always, to some extent, overwhelms me.

And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way.

Dr. Nancy Schlossberg, who specializes in the study of life transitions, says that “even with a desired change there is disruption in your life. Until you establish a new life you will feel bewildered” (emphasis mine).

For instance, the Fellows Program that I started this week is a very desired change. It comes with new roles, relationships, and routines. This is beautiful. But it’s also bewildering.

Why? Because we want clear roles, close relationships, and consistent routines as much as possible and as soon as possible. Until that happens, every day can feel like a kaleidoscope. Dizzying. Disordered. Different from second to second.

To deal with this, I’m recalling strategies I’ve heard over the years for dealing with first-week fatigue:

  1. Maintain at least one core routine that was consistent before your life changed and that you’re deciding to keep consistent despite your life change. If you’re used to going for a run in the morning, knitting in the evening, or blogging once a week (my routine of choice), find a way to keep doing it. You might have to do it at a different time or place than before, and you might have to ask someone for advice on when/where/HOW ON EARTH to keep your routine alive through the life change. But a life-giving routine is deeply worth the effort. (For help with identifying your life-giving routine/s, I recommend this old post “What Are Your Life-Giving Questions?” by Eugene Cho.)
  2. Rest. And this does NOT just mean vegging out in front of the TV. It blew my mind when a mentor once pointed to my media-mired perception of “rest” and said, “That’s not rest! That’s mindless. Rest is mindful.” It could happen in different ways for different people — so long as it makes you mindful of how your mind, body, and soul are doing.
  3. Say no. In order to keep routine and rest in your life, you have to say no to some demands. I want to help people (good intention) and be liked by people (not-so-good intention) so badly, that I always want to say yes when people ask for advice, a favor, a ride, you name it. But, with practice, I’ve started learning to consider my needs, consider the other person’s needs, weigh their urgency, and sometimes say no. If you couldn’t realistically be helpful to the other person because of your own physical, emotional, or spiritual fatigue, it’s time to say no.

How do you deal with first-week fatigue? If you’re experiencing or approaching a transition right now, how do you feel about it?

The Discipline of Retreat

Every day on my way to work I drive past the same shops and restaurants. The first day, I mused that one shop had a funny name and noted that a few restaurants looked like places to try in the future. After a few weeks of seeing this same scenery, however, I’ve made no new observations.

My psychology textbooks in college called this “sensory adaptation” — the process of experiencing reduced sensitivity to an experience due to repeated encounters with that experience.

The same thing happens to my spiritual life if I don’t take a retreat about once a season (could be more or less often for other people, but I choose once a season).

Why a retreat and not just a break, nap, etc.?

Because retreat entails “specific and regular times apart” — perhaps at a retreat center or outdoors — “for quietly listening to God and delighting in his company.” If a mere “break” in my daily commute could reverse my sensory adaptation process, then I would become acutely aware of my surroundings every time I headed off for work. But that isn’t the case. If a nap could do the trick, then I would wake up each morning noticing the sound of the alarm clock, the softness of the carpet underfoot, the smell of coffee downstairs. But, again, that isn’t the case.

We need retreat to notice new things about ourselves, our relationships, and our God.

A particularly good time for retreat is toward the beginning of something (e.g. beginning of a new job) or toward the end of something (e.g. end of a school year).

I recently ended college, moved halfway across the country, and began a new job. So, today, I took a retreat.

What made it a retreat? Well, I went to a place (a lake to be exact) where I rarely go and where I would be relatively undisturbed. I had few expectations of how the afternoon was going to go; God could say anything He wanted. So, I looked out over the water, asked God a question or two, opened my journal, and tried to let Him do just that.

It wasn’t mystical or anything, but reflecting on where God’s brought me and where He’s taking me was like letting an optometrist adjust my glasses prescription. I could see again — see past my accumulated sensory adaptation and see God at work.