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Sermons

Hope in Depression

May 26, 2013

Bible Readings

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.

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” 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. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

(I Kings 19: 1-13)


Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

(James 5: 13-18)

Sermon

As I begin my spiritual message this morning on our Sabbath of Hope concerning depression, the first thought I want to lift up is, sadness is not a sin. The truth of your emotions and why you are feeling them matters. We all deserve to experience and live out one of my favorite spiritual and psychological truths given by the Lord our Savior, which we find in John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Have you ever felt really blue or “down in the dumps”? Ever feel depressed or hopeless? Also, have you ever been through psychological depression that lasted more than three weeks, and which perhaps became debilitating in some way?

If so, then you may have experienced what psychology calls “depression.” The hallmark symptoms of clinical depression are as follows:

  • Persistent sad or empty mood
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Change in sleep habits (insomnia or excessive sleeping)
  • Loss of energy
  • Change in eating habits (overeating or loss of appetite)
  • Ongoing aches and pains that do not go away with treatment
  • Thoughts of suicide or death, or suicide attempts

Depression is often referred to as the “common cold of the psyche.” It is estimated that each year more than 19 million Americans suffer from clinical depression. Approximately one in five adults will experience depression in his or her lifetime. Clinical depression has been on the rise over the past fifty years. Additionally, depression will likely have a serious affect upon a person’s faith in and perceptions about God.

There was a time for me, during my mid-twenties, when I found myself clinically depressed. I can say for certain that it seriously impacted my faith and my deeper hopes in life. My depression affected my spiritual mind: I found myself more often doubting that the Lord truly cared about me, and my thinking in general was confused, as was my ability to access the deeper levels of my spiritual reasoning. Life, during my six months of depression, felt like a fog. I felt as though I was in a spiritual desert. I felt disconnected from the Lord. And instead of feeling hopeful about many things in life, I felt hopeless about it all. It seemed that most things in my life were much harder than they had been prior to my depression. Things like wanting to get out of bed in the morning, organizing my weekly schedule, wanting to hang out with my family and friends, making out a grocery list, or feeling like I was a worthwhile person in God’s and my own eyes were all far more difficult because I felt depressed.

Now, of course, we need to draw a distinction between the everyday, normal kinds of moods, which last for a period of minutes or hours or even a few days, and clinical depression, which I described already—the kind that affects one’s ability to function normally in life. We sometimes say of the regular “ups and downs” in life (such as missing out on a job or promotion), “I feel depressed!” Or we might experience that unwanted feeling of being really down or “in the dumps” after breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Jesus himself felt sad sometimes, such as after his close friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, died. We read in John 11:35 concerning the Lord’s grief over his friend’s death, “Jesus wept.” Or think of his grief over the people in the city of Jerusalem, his fellow countrymen, in John 19:41-42: “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

Spiritual and emotional struggles are part of life. In New Church theology, we understand the common human spiritual and psychological journey of life to be poignantly and symbolically revealed in the overall biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation. And when I look at that epic story in the light of New Church theology, what stands out to me is this:

  • The Lord’s divine love, his grace, loved us into being and remains our constant blessing forever.
  • Our psychological-spiritual journey is long! It contains seven distinct stages that contain many periods of growth and victory when we are living in relationship with God—as well as many times of deep doubt, fear, anxiety, and perhaps despair and depression.
  • Each stage of spiritual development is necessary—each one builds into the next.
  • The end goal, the purpose, within this journey is really, really beautiful. The angel-person God has in mind for us to become is worth the struggle.
  • Our periods of spiritual and psychological trial or temptation battle usually are intricately involved in our current spiritual developmental process. In other words, many people find that many of their journeys of suffering wind up leading them into vitally useful inner growth and transformation.

The riveting story in I Kings 19 illustrates where real-life spirituality and depression come together. Elijah’s journey following his awesome defeat of 450 of Queen Jezebel’s prophets contains a number of signs of clinical depression, or at least spiritual and emotional hopelessness.

Elijah felt so terrified and upset about the imminent threat to his life that he ran away in fear, going off to Beersheba, where he chose to isolate himself, leaving his servant and companion there. And then, after reaching that broom tree in the wilderness, Elijah actually calls out to God in prayer and asks that his life end right then and there! “It is enough!” the prophet exclaims. “Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”

I hear severe low self-esteem here. And clearly Elijah neglected to take in food and nourishment, for what does the angel of the Lord say to him not once but twice before helping him find spiritual balance? “Arise and eat.”

But one meal was not enough for the disillusioned, and perhaps depressed, prophet Elijah. For after he ate and drank once, he lay down and slept again. Perhaps, like many, he just felt hopeless inside and wanted to oversleep.

For some vital reason, Elijah’s faith and psychological strength were not up to the task of taking on Jezebel’s wrath. But another powerfully important thing comes out of this time of spiritual and emotional suffering for Elijah—he experiences help and support from the Lord, from the angels, and ultimately from others.

We see here that indeed, the Lord cares about us in our darkest times, in those spiritual deserts and valleys we encounter in life. In fact, Swedenborg teaches, it is during our times of suffering, doubt, and despair that the Lord is closest to us. No wonder we find in the story of Saul and David a story of compassion, in which God cared mercifully for the troubled King Saul by providing him with a skillful harpist—none other than the shepherd, David.

I like that story a lot for another reason, which is that it lifts up for us the importance of having compassion for those experiencing mental illness and choosing to provide faithful ministry to them, as David did for Saul. Unfortunately, in our society it is still easy for people suffering with some kind of mental illness to encounter insensitivity, misunderstanding, and avoidance from others.

But the church is meant to be a place where anyone suffering from physical, mental, or spiritual distress or disease can find solace and support. The Lord’s Church is meant to be a place of spiritual and emotional solace and healing. As we read in James 5, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”

This morning I want to make clear that debilitating depression is something to be aware of and not to hide. Let us choose to shed a compassionate light on “the common cold of the psyche,” and help our brothers and sisters among us and around us learn that there are many good reasons to have hope concerning depression.

Depression is something worth paying serious attention to—and it is something that we can have a lot of hope for in learning how to manage and heal. Approximately 70 to 80% of those suffering with depression will find healing and transformation through some or a combination of therapeutic modalities—through medication prescribed through a physician or psychiatrist, through a nutritious diet, from better exercise, through psychotherapy and/or support groups, through developing one’s spiritual life and disciplines (i.e., prayer, meditation, reading God’s Holy Word, attending regular worship, spending time listening to music or walking in nature, or volunteering to help others instead of isolating by one’s self), by visiting with clergy and pastoral counselors, and through ongoing education and learning.

We read in Isaiah of the power with which the Church—you, me, our religious community, and beyond—is anointed to aid those facing depression and other emotional and mental battles:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound….to comfort all who mourn, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.”

May the Lord our God continue inspiring and guiding us in our faith communities to reach out with faith, hope, and love to those suffering with mental illness. Amen.

Prayers

O Christ of the road of the wounded,
O Christ of the tears of the broken,
In me and with me, the needs of the world;
Grant me my prayers of loving and hoping,
Grant me my prayers of yearning and healing.

- J. Philip Newell, Celtic Prayers from Iona


As the hand is made for holding and the eye for seeing, thou hast fashioned me for joy. Share with me the vision to find it everywhere: in the wild violet’s beauty; in the lark’s melody; in the face of a steadfast man; in a child’s smile; in a mother’s love; in the purity of Jesus.

- Gaelic, tr. Alistair MacLean


May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may he give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.

- John Henry Newman, 1801-1890

Rev. Kit Billings