ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 20, 2016
UNDER THE BROOM TREE
1 Kings 19: 1 – 15; Luke 8: 26 – 39
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
A depressed man visited a doctor. The doctor examined him and found he was in prime physical condition. Concluding that his patient needed to have a good time, the physician told him about a circus in town and its star performer, a clown named Grimaldi. “You must go and see him,” the doctor advised. “Grimaldi is the world’s funniest clown. He’ll make you laugh and cure your sadness.” “No,” replied the despairing man, “he can’t help me. You see, I am Grimaldi!”
That’s a humorous story when we consider the embarrassment of the doctor, but not so humorous for poor Grimaldi. Substitute “Grimadli” with Robin Williams and it’s not funny at all. Although depression is depressing, it’s an important topic. Depression is an illness, as serious as cancer, diabetes or heart disease. It too is uninvited and can be just as deadly, leading to suicide. Depression can affect anyone and will touch most people at some time. Depression can be a passing response to a difficult situation or a life-long condition. It can be as normal as “feeling down” or as devastating as being alone in a dark pit for years on end. One man described it like this, “I cry all the time. I can’t get out of bed in the morning. Life seems daunting and pointless. I can’t find the energy to do the simplest of tasks. The world feels threatening; I feel vulnerable and worthless. I hate myself. God seems remote. Sometimes I feel nothing at all. I’m trapped and powerless. I have lost all hope”.
Depression also touches the lives of the family and friends of the afflicted person. If you’ve never been depressed, it’s hard to relate to someone who is and harder still to live with them. We want to help and can’t, which is frustrating and worrisome. Writer Allie Brosh likens depression to having dead fish “but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you care for the fish or figure out why they died.” Brosh suggests that rather than looking for some way to “cheer up the dead fish” the depressed person may just be looking for someone to say “sorry about how dead your fish are” or “wow, those fish are super dead. I still like you, though.” Support people have the best intentions. They care deeply. Walking beside the depressed person is difficult. Simone Weil writes, “One does not give things to the afflicted or do things for them. One must give one’s self, thus restoring for a little while the sense of identity they have lost.” Without strong boundaries, self-awareness and your own support system the care giver can “over-give” and fall into the pit of depression with the one they are trying to pull out.
Depression isn’t new. It’s a human experience which is often hidden due to shame. In recent years various forms of therapy have been developed to help people regain their sense of worth and power; Scientists now understand the physical aspects of depression and are able to treat it with medication. As someone who has spent many years in therapy and who gratefully takes medication for depression I believe anyone who has prolonged or severe depression needs to seek out this help. Exercise, a good diet, creative expression and friendships are also healing. God has blessed us with many forms of treatment and we should access them. Today I want to look at the spiritual side of depression.
Christians often beat up on ourselves or others for being depressed. We think Christians are supposed to be joyful all the time. If depression were controllable by sheer will that may be legitimate; however, it’s not. Chiding ourselves or another is unreasonable. This type of spiritual abuse only adds another layer of self-loathing to the depression. It may be intended to help people “snap out of it” but it will have the opposite effect. If you’re depressed, I want you to hear you are not a failed or faithless Christian. You are no more or less sinful than anyone else. Sometimes depression can be triggered by a sin in our lives and we need to examine that possibility honestly and repent. Often depression isn’t the result of a particular sin but of a sensitive spirit. Many people of faith have experienced depression. Most of the greatest saints including Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola and Julian of Norwich had bouts of depression. The Bible too tells of many people who experienced depression: Job, Hannah, Jonah, Jeremiah, David and Paul to name just a few. Even Jesus felt abandoned by God at the end of his life. (Job 3:24; 1 Sam 1:7; Jonah 4:3; Jer 15:10; Ps 42:5; 2 Cor 1:8; Mt 26:38 & Mk 15:34). Spiritually, depression feels like a demonic assault. The bleak mood and unrelenting messages of worthlessness seem to come from somewhere both within and beyond ourselves.
Today we read about Elijah sitting under a broom tree asking God to take his life. While depression has physical roots, some event usually kicks it off. Some triggers are indecision, unresolved relationship issues, death, disappointment, guilt, loss of self-esteem or identity, health issues, substance abuse, life changes, memories, and child-birth. These triggers can create a feeling of being powerless or trapped; either we can’t change the events or we’re caught in ideals and expectations we can’t fulfill. Unable to influence what is outside of us we loathe what is inside – our own souls. Elijah’s depression began with conflict. Elijah was God’s messenger to the Israelite King Ahab, a tyrant who massacred many of his people. Ahab turned his back on God and worshipped idols. Elijah was sent by God to confront Ahab and to call Israel back to God. This led to a competition between Yahweh and the false god Baal, which Yahweh easily won. Afterwards Elijah and the Israelites took the prophets of Baal and killed them. When Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, heard this she swore to take Elijah’s life. Once again Elijah retreated to the desert where he told God, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.” (1 Kings 19: 4) But instead of taking away Elijah’s life, God sent an angel who woke Elijah from his sleep and urged him to, “Get up and eat… 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.” (vs. 5 & 6) This happened twice. Often in depression we feel cut off from God, unloved and unlovable. This is not true. God cares. Like anyone who suffers, you are a person God has great compassion towards. Its human nature to ask for a sign. God knows the road back to wholeness is a journey that can be too much for us. Signs of his tenderness and love may be subtle. They often come through other people. They may need to sustain us for a long time so we need to watch for them and to receive them. To rest in them. We need to allow their message of tenderness and love to seep through the darkness into our hearts. God cares.
Elijah then journeyed to Mount Horeb where he waited in a cave. God asked him a simple question, “What are you doing here Elijah?” (vs. 9) Elijah gave him the whole sad story, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (vs. 10) Elijah had done everything God asked; he was a victim. He felt threatened and powerless. God told him to go out of the cave because he was going to reveal himself. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” (vs. 11 & 12) And God was in the silence. The silence of God is an on-going part of depression. We often think a great experience of God is found in a correspondingly great event but God gives himself in small ways, even in nothing at all. He gives and we need to see and hear him. When all we have is silence, we need to locate God in the silence.
God then repeated his question, “What are you doing here Elijah?” The answer was the very same. In spite of this encounter with God, nothing has changed. When we’re depressed we pray to lift the pain to a higher level where it will stop being destructive. God leaves it in our hands. God tends not to do for us what we need to do for ourselves. When we’re caught between the army and the sea, God says, “swim”. Although life seems meaningless, we’re afraid of drowning. God tells us to risk it.
Depression is an experience of death. The first act of Christ was to empty himself and through the silence and pain of depression, Christ empties us. The outer masks we wear are stripped away. Layer after layer of our false self-images are mercilessly peeled off. We are left to face our empty selves. It’s not easy. We soon see that the poor who are always with us are ourselves. We learn that our stellar moral performance and our conformity won’t – can’t – save us. We discover how deeply we need Christ. We find grace. Depression is a path of surrender. Sometimes mercy is painful. The key is to sit under the broom tree and simply be. After death comes resurrection.