II Corinthians 12:8-11     Listen!

In my weakness, I am strong

August 17, 2014

Roy W. Howard

I was 34 years old, a year out of seminary, having switched from a career in social work, primarily community mental health and now beginning my pastoral life as an associate pastor. I only preached occasionally though one Sunday I preached a sermon on a text I cannot recall but the response to it is as vivid as yesterday. Or at least I thought at the time it was a response to it. On that Sunday afternoon, we got word that Dr. Jesse Harris, an esteemed elder of the Church and the head of the psychology department of the University of Kentucky, had been found hanging in the basement. I am embarrassed to admit how quickly the anguish I felt at his heartbreaking suicide turned to the anguish I felt worrying about what I said in the morning sermon. Why didn’t I know what he was feeling as he shook my hand walking out of the sanctuary? How did I miss the clues? Did I say anything that would bring him to his final action? Was there any word of encouragement – of grace – he heard that day?

Finally, my mentor told me to knock it off. “It’s not about you,” he said directly. “Get over yourself.” This man was determined to do what he did before you spoke one word that morning. I needed to hear that for the same reason that all people who experience ‘survivors guilt’ need to hear that it is not their fault that someone succumbs to suicide. This is the particular horror of suicide: the relentless pain of those whose life goes on with a huge gaping hole. “It’s not about you,” he said, then he reminded me of my call: “now help his family face their grief with the love of Christ.”

Yet, as much as I understand my mentor’s advice and tried to follow it, ever since that experience I have been aware that on any given Sunday when we gather for prayer and worship, someone among us may well be desperate, dealing with nearly unbearable pain, and afraid to speak about it. I want to acknowledge that today as honestly as possible in the hope that a word of God’s grace may sustain you – as it did Saint Paul – and that you may have strength enough to tell someone of your pain today. I will be available after the worship to talk with anyone who wants to talk or pray.

In the end, we may not know exactly what leads a person to commit suicide to stop a pain so searing that it burns someone alive. But at least one reason that leads person to take his life is the total isolation that disables him from speaking of the very pain that has stripped his voice. He (or she) becomes voiceless and alone, at the very moment he most needs to speak and be with another. To be in such pain defies easy description. Some have said this is the depression that leads to death: once you are in that place there is nothing that can be said or done. You are paralyzed. Maybe. But, maybe not.

I have walked on the edge of that abyss. In my own experience with serious depression there is a zone before the abyss opens during which I can speak of the impending cloud before it fully descends. This may be a very small window but it is critical during that time that I give voice to my pain. Telling another is the way out before the window closes. It’s also true that when I am enveloped in that all consuming cloud virtually nothing anyone says can be heard at the depth that is necessary for relief – however comforting, encouraging and true it is. As a friend said, “Once the cloud fully descends, it’s as though the monster demon has pinned both hands behind you, and gagged you as well.”

For me, the horrible grip of depression is like wearing a skin-tight wet suit around the mind/heart that prevents me from hearing any word that will enable me to find a new way forward. A bullet-proof glass bubble that nothing can penetrate drops around you. It’s a conundrum that can only be cracked open when the isolation is broken. Perhaps this is why Saint Paul relied so heavily on the metaphor of The Body to help us understand that essentially we are not isolated from one another. We belong to God. We are not disconnected, we are connected and it is in this essential connection that we experience the living Christ. It is precisely when we forget our connection to the living Christ in one another, that we are most in peril losing sight of the love of Christ or anyone else’s love. The cloud descends. The glass bubble is imposed and life becomes a lonely exile for the one suffering depression. And you may not even notice because the bubble is clear glass and it may appear the person is fine.

Several years ago, I experienced a window closing on me, and the cloud descending. It kept closing and the cloud kept descending even on the brightest of summer days. The wet-suit around my heart/mind was tighter and tighter, allowing no word of encouragement from my wife or closest friends to penetrate. There was little I could do. I was smiling on the outside and sighing on the inside; bewildered and frightened. The monks of the 6h century have a word for this: it’s called Acedia. It’s akin to melancholy but much deeper; a sorrowfulness of the spirit. My soul was in the grip of acedia; a melancholy so deep that it was like trying to walk in quicksand. I prayed the Psalms daily, read scripture, carried on my work and waited for the sun to shine on my beleaguered heart. It did not. Then I believe I heard a Word from the Lord – a Word that became my salvation. Before the window closed entirely I took a risk on this Word from the Lord. At least it seemed like a risk for a Presbyterian pastor, who after all has a job of leading the people of God. To do that, I needed to risk telling the truth.

I went to the elders – the spiritual leaders of the church – and told them that I was enveloped in a depression so deep that frightened me. This was not the blues. I needed them to know. Then I stopped speaking waiting for what would happen next.

What happened next is a testimony to the reality of the connected Body of Christ and the way of grace in real life. No one gasped in horror that a pastor could have such pain or if he did, dared admit it. No asked if I wanted to leave now or be let go later. (A fear I entertained.) What happened is the elders began to speak to me with kindness and concern. One of them described her experiences and wondered if I had checked out my thyroid. And that turned out to be a path toward healing. Nothing happened instantly, yet slowly after a visit to the doctor, I began to move forward differently. That moment of vulnerability is the best thing I have ever done. The cloud, in time, began to ascend.

Once of my pastor friends asked me: where do you experience God in the pain of depression? Saint Paul said that in his weakness, he discovered the strength of God.

I told my friend I believe the love of God shows up in the embodied love of people; this is the Body of Christ. The presence of God is found in the Other who is present to me as Christ. It is in this essential connection with one another that we experience God’s presence rather than isolation. This is my faith – believing that when I fall, I’m falling into God whose presence is manifest in people. And don’t forget: this grace may come to someone suffering depression through good medicine, good treatment and a community of care.

For me, vulnerability – the risk of telling the truth of my own pain – has become a way in which I can walk with God with integrity and an utter dependence upon God’s grace to sustain my life when I have little strength to sustain it myself. It is this vulnerability – speaking honestly – that is necessary; along with the conviction that we are all connected to one another and belong to God.