Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Flickering Flame

As an acolyte at Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal, I’ve spent a good part of the last year-and-a-half standing at the Western door with my hand cupped around a candle, protecting the flame from the breezes following our congregants through the doors. In summer, the winds are hot, longing to lift the hair off my neck. In winter, the winds burn with an icy, cutting fire that works its way down to my very bones. But always, always, the door opens and the wind dances around my candle, bending my flame this way and that as it flickers against the changing currents. So I stand with my hand shielding the fire, guarding it from the breeze and feeling the unwavering heat against my palm.

Over the years, I’ve often heard it said that faith is like that flame you have to shelter from the wind. People will talk about faith as though it’s a fire we have to feed, that we have to tend, that we have to preserve against the winds and forces that would blow it out. We talk about not hiding our flame, but letting it shine. We talk about faith as a fragile thing that ebbs and flows and sometimes threatens to go out.

To some extent that’s true: we experience our faith as ebbing and flowing because it’s alive, and within us moves and has its being. We experience our faith as sometimes flaring up, as sometimes guttering, and as sometimes a steady burn. But that’s our experience of faith. Our faith, more truly, is a gift from God given in and through the Holy Spirit. Although the way we experience faith is mutable, it’s a mistake to think this means our faith is inconstant and changeable, that we can lose it or throw it away or allow its fire to go out. Although we may resist our faith, because we resist God, it is always still there, closer to us that we are to ourselves, as God is.

Lately, I’ve been feeling my life is like that flame, flickering and failing and threatening to go out in the violent breezes. Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe, like there’s no more air, nothing to sustain me – and I think of the recurrent nightmare I had throughout childhood, where something that should be light is inexplicably heavy instead, and it is pressing down and suffocating me, until suddenly I am falling and falling, waking up when I hit the ground in terror.

Sometimes I feel like there’s too much air, too much everything, tearing and pulling at me, pushing me to and fro. And I don’t know if I can bear it.

The strong winds are arrayed against me, and I cannot withstand them. I feel my clothing pressing against my ribcage, my necklace lying against my collarbone, and I cannot abide it. Touching my skin irritates me, and I do not understand it. My veins, so close to the surface, torment me all day with thoughts that I should open them, and I am weary of resisting. I am weary of not being able to read and follow complex texts and movies. I am tired of the constant, constant sadness and emotional pain. I am weary of not wanting to eat, of not enjoying food, of not caring about what I’m wearing, of not having the strength to put on makeup, and of existing. I’m tired of not sleeping, and of staring at walls. It wears away at me, day by day, as I hold the burden. Thoughts of my own unworthiness, of my guilt, of what I have allowed to happen to me, swirl in my head. It is the nature of depression to lie, and the line between the truth and the lie becomes thin and invisible as a razor’s edge; my mind is fragmenting against itself, and I am afraid I will not be able to know the difference. Night falls fast, and the darkness is my constant companion. I see my life, like the fragile flame, flickering, and I am afraid of the darkness that will fall if it goes out.

My life is like the burning flame, and I am ambivalent about whether or not I want it to go out. I remember, when I was 19, waking up in the freezing ICU, attached to heart monitors and IV’s, with blood molded to my nostril where they had shoved down one of the tubes for pumping my stomach. I remember waking up with the absolute conviction that I was alive because God had decided to save me. I was angry with Him, but I felt like I owed it to Him to struggle to keep living. I remember, when I was 23, waking up in the emergency room, setting off alarms as I tried to remove my own IV line to stab myself with the sturdy needle. I remember feeling like a failure, disappointed that I was alive, and not knowing how this fit into God’s plan or what the point was. I remember my psychiatrist crying, and feeling like I owed it to him to keep trying.

I don’t know how I would feel, at 30, if I woke up again. I don’t know if I would be relieved or disappointed, forgiving of myself or deeply ashamed. But I do know that it’s important for me that people understand certain things, like that this might be the course my illness always has to take, and that while I can try to forestall it I am not always in control. And I’m sorry for what this does to the people around me, and I know I’m not the only one affected. And I’m sorry.

If I am the flickering flame, my faith is the hand cupped around me trying to keep me from going out. It’s important to me that people understand God has not failed. God is with me, I know He hasn’t abandoned me. I know that God said all is falling into darkness and God is the light, and I know that I need to hold on to the light. This isn’t about God failing, or my faith not being strong enough. If the candle goes out, that doesn’t say anything about the hand guarding it. It says only that the flame is too fragile, too weak, and the winds too strong.

Once, as part of a procession, I took my candle outside and the wind blew it out. It was just too much, and I couldn’t protect the whole flame. God’s hand is like that: it doesn’t completely surround you, because God treasures the flame and wants it to be. Under a bell jar, the fire would burn steady and then suffocate, starved of air. God’s love for us, as people and as humanity, means that He allows us to flicker, to burn unevenly, to shine in the world, and to be blown out.

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:37-39).

Sunday, December 1, 2013

To Become Like Children

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Mt 18:8-9).

Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, Christianity is not a religion that generally promotes self-mutilation. Sure, there are exceptions: Opus Dei and some religious orders practice self-flagellation as part of the mortification of the flesh; crucifixion of the faithful to celebrate Good Friday in the Philippines; the occasional castration of singers, and monks who long too boldly. But for the most part, we consider the body sacred, a temple unto the Lord. And yet, here is Jesus, telling us to chop off our hands and feet, to pluck out our eyes, if they cause us to sin.

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us that it is not what we put into the body that defiles, but what comes out of it (Mt 15:10-20). Taken together with this passage, we are presented with a human person whose being is profoundly embodied. The hand is not somehow being acted upon by the mind or spirit, being caused by the mind or spirit to sin. The hand is sinning, is the sin. The hand is not something that is defiled by being outside the self; nor is it a part or thing that can come into contact with you and defile you, leaving the soul blameless.

There is in the Christian tradition a profound pattern of trying to make the body bear the brunt of sin, the burden of sin, by saying that the flesh corrupts the spirit, as if the two are somehow separate. Chopping off your own hand is a sort-of metaphor for cutting out all the bits of you that lead you to sin. What good is it to cut off the hand if the desire for sin remains? Sin arises from each and every part of you, not just the one bit or the other, the body or the soul. It’s a question of the whole person, and the sometimes drastic changes we need to make to be able to stop committing particular sins.

I struggle with this passage because I struggle to understand exactly how much, and in what ways, my depression is leading me to sin. Apart from some of the more extreme things I’ve done while in the grip of depression (which are clearly sins) there are all sorts of ways my illness causes me to sin. It makes me more self-centered and self-absorbed because I begin to live in a bubble of my pain. It makes me less aware of other people and their pain. It makes me put myself, and my struggles, at the centre of my life instead of God. It makes me angry and hate myself. It makes me believe that my life is pointless, and meaningless, and that there’s no good reason to do anything, or even to keep going at all.

Is depression a part of me, or is it something that comes from outside and does not defile? The question plagues me because I struggle with knowing whether or not what it causes me to do is sin, or just illness. I think the answer is complicated. I think there isn’t just one answer. My depression lives inside me, in my body and in my mind, and so is profoundly who I am, and its sins are mine. My depression is not me but something that has gone wrong inside of me, a thing apart from me that cannot defile, though it resides within me, and its sins are not mine.

Both statements are true. Both statements are false. My depression and I are intertwined in complicated, unknowable ways, and while we can be conceived of separately, we are not, in fact, separate. Sort of how my body, mind, and soul are not separate. The difference is that I will always be embodied, but at the judgement only I will be thrown into the fire, and all that I am, and nothing that I am not.

We all have things about us that lead us to sin. Desires, personality traits, impulses of the flesh. And it isn’t as simple as chopping off your arm and being done with the whole business. There are things in the world that lead us into temptation (My 18:7), and we must try to avoid them. There are things about ourselves that lead us into temptation, and we can’t avoid them; we must strive to change ourselves, to get rid of those things. It’s painful, far more painful and difficult than plucking out an eye. We must be willing, in the face of God, to let go of those parts of ourselves that in their own way make us who we are, that they may be thrown into the fire so that we may have life.

Jesus tells us that we must “turn and become like children” (Mt 18:3) by humbling ourselves. It’s difficult to admit that there are parts of us that are just plain wrong. It’s difficult to admit that our lives, in all their glory and sorrow, are permeated by sin. It’s difficult to let go of the parts of ourselves that lead us especially to sin, because it’s always difficult to let go. We cling, and we cling, and we cling to our selves, to who and what we are, as if it will save us or be what about us is saved. But to have eternal life we must be willing to lose our lives (Mt 16:25). Jesus will save us, and we will not be saved by anything that we are. But we will be transformed, and we will be different. The old self will have to be let go, and we need to be ready and willing to do it.

No one can live this life free from sin, though we are called to struggle with all our might against it. Thankfully, we have God on our side: “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Mt 18:14). God is helping us as we seek to turn and be like children, to be humble enough to admit our faults, and to seek a better way – God’s way – no matter what the cost.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Loaves and the Fishes

“And they all ate and were satisfied” (Mt 15:37).

Matthew 15:32-39 is a story beloved by many. Having been with the crowd for three days, Jesus has compassion on them because they have had nothing to eat. Not wanting them to faint on the way home, Jesus calls His disciples to Him, and they balk at the idea of somehow feeding these thousands of people in the desert. Rather than being put-off by their no-can-do attitude, Jesus asks them to bring what little food they have. After giving thanks for the seven loaves and a few small fish, Jesus breaks them, gives them to the disciples, and has them distribute the pieces to the crowd. They all eat and are satisfied, and seven basketfuls are taken up of what remains. Having fed them, Jesus sends the crowd on their way and continues His journey with the disciples.

This story has always fascinated me. I wonder to myself, What made Jesus worry about people being hungry after three days? Surely, not having food must have been an ongoing problem, so why is Jesus only mentioning it now? While the text might intend the three days to be a symbolic mirror of Jesus’ three days between death and resurrection, and the breaking of the loaves and fish to foreshadow the Last Supper and the breaking of His Body and Blood, it has just never seemed obvious to me.

I think of the three days in the desert with no food and I think, Wow, you must really have wanted to be with Jesus. You stuck it out the whole time He was there, and you probably would have stuck it out indefinitely. I don’t know if I would have had that kind of stamina.

A good part of our faith life is spent sticking it out with Jesus. Long periods in the desert, in dryness, without any nourishment. Long periods of life are spent just hanging on, just keeping on going. Jesus was doing some miraculous stuff in that desert, but not for everyone. Of all the thousands of people who came for miracles, who brought people for miracles, who came to see miracles, there was no one who couldn’t have had their fill in the first hour, the first minute, the first day. “Well, I’ve seen a miracle;” “I’m cured now, bye.” But the crowd stayed for three days, and left because Jesus sent them away.

The really amazing part is that Jesus notices you’re there, hanging around, for all this time. His days are taken up with healing people, making the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and countless other miracles. Jesus is incredibly busy doing really important stuff. But He still notices the crowd, He still notices that people have been there this whole time, He still notices that they must be hungry because they’ve brought no food. In the midst of all that God is and all that God is doing, God sees that we’re sticking it out. Even if all we’re doing is hanging on, God sees it. Sometimes it’s all you can do, and Jesus knows that. Jesus notices. Whatever is it that’s going on in our lives, it is not beneath God to care about it.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

It’s impossible to not see the miracle that Jesus performs in this story. Even if you believe there are many other, scientific reasons that the blind may have started seeing, the lame walking, and the deaf hearing, there’s no other way the loaves and the fish could have multiplied other than that God did it.

Jesus has to coax it out of the disciples. At first, they don’t believe He’s even suggesting feeding all these people. Jesus has to ask them how much food they have with them for the disciples to bring it forward. This is their second multiplying-of-the food miracle (Mt 14:13-21), and they still don’t see it coming. Finally they bring Him what little they have, and Jesus gives thanks and uses it to feed thousands of people.

God takes our small, humble, human gifts and in His power makes them bigger than they ever could be. There’s nothing you could ever bring to God that’s too small for Him to work miracles with. God can make even the smallest of things be enough. And not just enough, but abundant. Jesus feeds the crowd and there are basketfuls of excess. Basketfuls. God’s love is so powerful, God’s power is so abundant, that He gives us more than we could ever need.

It’s easy to feel like you don’t have anything worth giving to God. It’s easy to feel that you are small, and insignificant, like grass that withers away and is thrown into the furnace. What is a human life to God? What could you ever hope to have, or be, that is worthy of giving Him? Everyone has moments when they believe that, and if you struggle with depression you just have more of them. What do I have, what am I, that I could possibly offer God?

Nothing, and everything. You are already God’s, so you have nothing to give Him. But you can give Him your whole self, even the not-so-fantastic bits, because you have yourself to give the One to Whom you belong: that’s what love does. Before God’s awesome power and love, of course you feel small and worthless – but God made you for His purposes and delights in you, for you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Of course you feel that what you have to give God isn’t enough – but God will make it enough. By ourselves, we are small and of little account – but just because God limits Godself does not mean that God is limited. In God, we are made so much more that we could ever hope or ask or imagine.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

In Matthew’s story, the crowd doesn’t have to do anything to receive Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and the fish. They just have to be there. In fact, they are there already to receive something freely from Jesus because they are there to witness or receive miracles. They have come to watch the lame walking and to walk; the blind seeing and to see; the deaf hearing and to hear. Jesus gives them this miracle not because of anything they’ve done for him, but simply because they are hungry and He wants them not to be.

So often we think of miracles as the result of prayer, or of faith, or of something we’ve done to be worthy of God’s favor. “God healed me because I have so much faith;” “God gave me a vision because my contemplative prayer life is so regular;” “I saw Mary’s face on a piece of toast because I am so virtuous.” But that isn’t necessarily true. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives the crowd a miracle because he feels like it – not because they asked Him, not because they convinced Him, and not because they did anything for Him either before or in return.

Obviously these people had faith: they were out in the desert for three days. But the miracle is not dependant on their faith, it’s dependant on Jesus. The English translation of the text says that he “[had] compassion on the crowd” (15:32). When we talk about compassion we don’t just mean that God understands or knows what you are feeling, but that God is feeling it too. I had a conversation recently where someone much wiser than I am suggested that God feels what you are feeling, that God feels sad when you feel sad, that God feels happy when you feel happy, that God feels betrayed when you feel betrayed. I’ve always believed – always known somewhere deep inside me, even when the darkness has swallowed me whole – that God is with me, that God is beside me, that I am not alone. But I’ve never thought about God feeling what I’m feeling while He’s down there with me. It’s difficult to get my head around it. That God’s compassion doesn’t just mean He feels bad for us and wants to help us, but that He feels bad. In the desert, Jesus fed the crowd because Jesus was hungry.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

This doesn’t mean that we should sit complacently by the wayside waiting for a miracle whenever God feels like giving us one. Jesus actively involves the disciples: He could have handed out the loaves and fish Himself, the fruits of His miracle, but instead He has the disciples do it. The disciples don’t even think it’s possible for Jesus to feed the crowd, they cannot conceived of it, and yet God calls on them to be a part of His plan, a part of His miracle. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that there are times – perhaps many times – in our lives where God speaks to us or asks us to do something or tries to give us a message and we just completely fail to get it. We don’t hear it. We don’t understand it. And when we do hear it, it can be confusing and seem impossible. But we are called to hand out the loaves and the fishes, to use our small gifts for God, regardless of what we might think about it. We might think we’re too small, but we have to have faith that God will make us be enough.

The crowd trusts that Jesus will take care of them, without hesitation and without fear. There is never any question. No one even brought any food. They went out into the desert to be with Jesus and didn’t think about the practicalities of it, what they might need to do to plan, or how long they might be out there. They were willing to trust that it would work itself out, somehow. We are called to that kind of faith, that kind of trust. Trusting God completely, enough to let go, enough to follow Him out into the desert, is its own miracle. When I pray for a miracle, and God says no, not today, I have to trust that God has a plan, that He knows what He’s doing, that He will take care of me, that I am not forgotten even in the midst of all the big works that He is doing. For we are small and of little account, and we are also infinitely precious in the sight of the Lord.

The crowd that comes to see Jesus is with Him for three days before He feeds them. Sometimes, you have to wait for a miracle, to be patient. You have to be willing to stick it out, to hang around, to keep going. Jesus is sticking by you and you have to stick by Him, even when it’s difficult, especially when it’s difficult. God will provide, but it will be in God’s own way and in God’s own time. God will provide, and do so abundantly.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Strength of My Hands

For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will drop from their work, and it will not be done.” But now, O God, strengthen thou my hands” (Neh 6:9).

The book of Nehemiah begins with the speaker discovering that the wall around Jerusalem has been “broken down, and its gates [destroyed] by fire” (1:3). As cupbearer to king Artaxerxes, Nehemiah does not live in Jerusalem with those who survived the exile and returned, but he still feels a deep connection to the hoy city: learning its wall has fallen, he sits down and weeps (1:4). Nehemiah asks God to forgive His people for their sins against Him, and comes to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall (1:4-11). He inspects it without telling anyone what he intends, then convinces the people to “[strengthen] their hands” (2:18) and begin to rebuild, so Jerusalem may no longer live in disgrace.

The people of the Nations surrounding Israel don’t like Nehemiah rebuilding the wall. They mock and deride the Israelites for building it, asking if they are defying the king (2:19). Still, they keep building the wall. Their enemies plot to fight them (4:8), and Nehemiah sets a guard on the wall, and they keep building. Their enemies plot to kill them in the middle of their work (4:11), and Nehemiah places people in every space, one person to build and another to defend. He reminds them not to be afraid of their enemies but to remember “the Lord, who is great and terrible” (4:14). They keep building the wall. The people who carry burdens have the load in one hand and a sword in the other (4:17), and they keep building the wall. They labour at their work and sleep with weapons in their hands, retreating into the city at night (4:21-23).

When the wall is built, with no doors yet in its gates, Jerusalem’s enemies try to trick Nehemiah into leaving the city to meet them, so they can kill him (6:1-2). He refuses to stop the work and leave. His enemies accuse him of wanting to be king, thinking that he will be frightened of Persia’s reprisals (6:6-9). People try to fool Nehemiah into closing himself in the temple, thereby declaring himself ruler of Jerusalem and bringing down Artaxerxes’ wrath (6:10-13). Jerusalem’s enemies try everything they can think of to fill the Israelites’ hearts with fear, so their hands will drop from their work, so that they will give up. Through it all, they keep building the wall until the city is surrounded and its gates are secured.

It’s easy to question why Nehemiah was so hung up on building the wall in the first place, and why he was so devastated to hear it had been destroyed: after all, “the people within [Jerusalem] were few and no houses had been built” (7:4). For Nehemiah, Jerusalem – its temple, its people, and its walls – represents much, much more than just a city, much more even than a home. Jerusalem represents God’s covenant with Israel: that He will be their God and they will be His people; that the people will never cease to be; that a king of David’s line will sit on the throne; that they will be a multitude beyond numbering. The people have come up from Egypt and God has delivered them into their own land, which they shall hold forever as their inheritance.

For Nehemiah, and for most of the Hebrew bible, Israel’s misfortunes happen because of sin. The people are sent into exile, and Jerusalem is destroyed, because they turned away from God through idolatry and did not keep His commandments. The temple must be rebuilt so that the people can keep the laws and glorify the Lord. The people must repent and be purified so the remnant can be restored. The walls of Jerusalem must be built because the city is both the reality and the symbol of God’s promise that He will gather His scattered people from among the nations and return them to Himself.

Each in her own way, we are like Nehemiah and the Israelites building Jerusalem’s wall. We all have work we are called by God to do. God has covenanted Himself with us and we are asked to do His work, to follow where He leads us, to repent and turn to Him anew. Like Nehemiah and the Israelites, we are faced with enemies, forces that try to turn us aside, to step off the path, that frighten us into dropping our hands from our work.

Depression can be that enemy in different ways. It can strip you of your energy and will, leaving you paralyzed. Anhedonia can make you lose interest and pleasure in the people and things that are important to you. You might not be able to concentrate, as if you’re thinking and moving and seeing through a thick fog. You could spend hours sobbing uncontrollably, or numb to the world and staring at a wall, or curled up under a pile of blankets. You could be crushed by fear, and guilt, and loneliness, and the feeling that your life has no meaning and is not worth living. Sometimes you might want to withdraw from everyone. Sometimes you might be afraid to be with anyone because you’re desperately trying to hide the reality of what’s happening to you.

Everyone – no matter who they are – has enemies urging them to drop their hands from building the wall. It’s easy to fall prey to these forces because they’re powerful, because sometimes their way looks simpler, because it isn’t always obvious that we’re doing God’s work. The thing about not building an actual wall is that it isn’t always clear what bits of what we’re doing are part of God’s plan. But we know we’re called to praise and glorify the Lord, and to love God and neighbor.

The story of Nehemiah building the wall shows us that it’s important not to allow anything to let our hands drop from God’s work. We must keep striving no matter what tries to frighten us away. Though the Israelites have been beaten down, have been conquered, are still conquered, and have sinned – they are still building the wall, and God is still helping them.

We are not building a wall, not rebuilding a home, because we have a home in Jesus and it can never fall. We have a temple, and God raised it in three days. We do God’s work, however fragile it may turn out to be, on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ, which will never be shaken.

Like Nehemiah, we cannot expect to do it alone, and we need to learn to admit that. I have to learn to admit that. Sometimes I can’t do it, I can’t be who I want to be. I just can’t. Whatever it is that God wants me to do, I can’t today. I am failing. And I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. But God gathered the remnant, and I know when I try again tomorrow He will gather me. Nehemiah wasn’t the only person building that wall, so maybe it’s okay to do it together. To defend us, we have the martyrs and saints, the whole company of heaven, God, and each other. It’s okay to not be able to do it alone. In his moments of weakness, Nehemiah asks God to strengthen him. In darkness, in doubt, in despair, God is the strength of our hands. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

White Birch by the Water

I like to walk around because it helps me to clear my head of the thoughts that clutter it up so much of the time: all that movement, rhythmic motion, all that breath, takes me out of myself somehow. I can’t say I always notice the world around me, but I do try to.

This is not a post about theology, or the Bible, or anything bigger or other than me. If you come here only for the sometimes strange things I say while I’m thinking about God and the Bible, you might want to skip this one.

It was a nice day out, warm for the time of year and sunny, so I decided to go for a long walk. I walked out to around Oka park, along the bike path that runs near my house. I’m fortunate to live so close to this long trail through the forest. I went all the way out to one of my favorite spots, a somewhat isolated pond off the main path through a small trail. I followed the trail to a white birch tree so I could sit in its hollow and look at the water. The trees have lost their leaves, and everything was still and quiet.

I looked at a dead, fallen tree dangling its leafless branches in the still water. In some ways I feel like the tree, not all the way in and not all the way out of life, of living. Partway under the surface. I thought about walking into the water, feeling the pond slip over me like a tree falling under the calm surface, carried by its weight further under the deep waters. I imagined what it would be like, how easy it would feel, to fall asleep beneath the unbroken silver of the pond.

But the water is cold this time of year. And I figured not wanting to die in cold water was reason enough to go back home and leave the white birch tree alone where it had fallen.

The thing is that I’m experiencing a major depressive episode. I’m trying to live my life exactly the way I normally do, but I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know if that’s the right decision or not, or if it will be possible as I fall deeper into this illness. While I have adapted to years of chronic, stable depression, I have never been prepared for these major episodes and I am not prepared now. I am having symptoms that are unusual for me.

I want to thank you for supporting me and keeping me in your thoughts and prayers as I know you’ve been doing. I also want to thank you for reading this blog: writing it, and knowing that I’m not the only person here reading it, is important to me in ways that I hadn’t realized until I began to really struggle with whether or not I should – or could, or can – continue writing it. I started this project because I felt compelled to think seriously about my own depression and my own spirituality and theology as aspects of my life that are intertwined. But it has helped me feel more connected to myself, more sure of my beliefs, and less alone as I struggle with these questions and search for meaning in what I find is happening to me.

Your support means a lot to me , and I hope to have you with me here (and elsewhere) throughout this journey.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Kingdom of God Is Among You

“In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:9-10).

“And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev 22:5).

Most of us have thought of heaven at one time or another. Maybe we’ve thought about it because we’ve seen pretty pictures of God’s Kingdom in the sky, and have wondered what it would be like to live there. Maybe we’ve thought about it in remembering loved ones who have died, curious about what they might be experiencing. Maybe we’ve thought about it because we’re desperately afraid of hell. Maybe we’ve thought about it as something we long for, and hope for, and dream of.

Heaven, or how we imagine heaven, is one of the ways we think about God’s Kingdom. Revelation 21:1-27 shows us John’s vision of the Kingdom as a heavenly city coming down out of heaven from God after the first heaven and first earth have passed away. This city “made of pure gold, clear as glass” (21:18) has no temple because “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). Chapter 22 shows us the river of life “flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (22:1), echoing Ezekiel’s vision of a life-giving river flowing from the threshold of the new temple (Ezek 47:1-12). The river of the water of life flows through the city, nourishing the tree of life whose leaves heal the nations.

In this heavenly Jerusalem, there is no more night, no more darkness, no more sadness, and no more pain, “for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). Christ Himself is the light. More than just dispelling the darkness – a transformative promise in itself – in Christ’s reign we shall see His face and know Him fully, and live; His Name will be written on our foreheads as we go into the holy of holies and see Him face to face. We will know Him in all His blinding glory. Christ’s rule invites us in, as we share in His reign and in His light forever.

The vision of God’s Kingdom as a place where Christ’s light has dispelled all darkness is powerful. I find myself longing after it, longing after that Kingdom, yearning for an end to the gathering darkness, an end to the separation between God and myself. John’s vision is the answer to the most desperate longing of our hearts: to be with God and know Him.

But John’s vision is also a bit alienating and otherworldly. It’s so far away. It’s so long in coming. It’s so different from the first heaven and the first earth, the lives we’re living, the race we’re running and must not give up running. A Kingdom to be longed and hoped for, to be dreamed of, but not grasped. It’s the Kingdom of the ascended Christ, Who sits at the right hand of God.

Jesus didn’t just leave the Kingdom behind like something He forgot to pack in His knapsack when He came down for a visit. Though Jesus emptied Himself, He brought the Kingdom with Him. We encounter it every time we meet Jesus, in His deeds of power, in His transforming love, and in His death on the cross. Small and infinite, growing and unchanging, here and not-yet-here, God’s Kingdom defies the logic of the human mind and speaks in the language of our heart.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us about the Kingdom in parables. Impenetrable, obscure, clear, earthly, and comforting: the Kingdom is at once baffling and simple, incomprehensible and the most obvious thing in the world. More to be felt than understood, the Kingdom of God gives itself to us in the humble language of the world and hides itself in the everyday fabric of our lives.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us that Jesus descended and ascended so that He “might fill all things” (Eph 4:10). We know Jesus descended into hell, and that He ascended into heaven. He is victorious over death and the devil, and sits at the right hand of God. He did spectacular things that only God can do. He also came here, and lived a life. Jesus was ecstatically happy. Jesus wept. Jesus laughed, and ate, and drank. Sometimes He was angry. He was tempted. He was afraid. He got sick, he laughed, he had friends. He was probably bored sometimes. Jesus lived a fully human life so that God could fill all things.

Jesus is with us in our daily lives. He’s with us in the boring bits, He’s with us in the exciting bits, the happy bits, and the sorrowful bits. All our lives are filled with Jesus, even if He’s not doing anything other than being here with us. Jesus’ life fills all things, and we know that even if He didn’t live an experience exactly like ours, He understands us, and we are not alone.

Sometimes Christians, like all people, try and push the difficult bits of life to the side and hide them away, especially if they don’t make sense. While we understand grief and loss and hardship and pain, sometimes the melancholy that has no reason is harder to understand, and so easier to want to cover up. Over the years, well-meaning people have told me to pull my socks up, to get over it, to look on the bright side. If I’m being honest, I’ve sometimes said those things to myself. People whom I know love me have said that it’s wrong to be ungrateful for the life that God has given me, that God would never give anyone a burden they couldn’t carry, and that we are all living the fate we are meant to. I’ve heard it said that it’s wrong to ask God to take our burdens from us, and we should just trust that He knows what He’s doing. Whoever said that has forgotten that Jesus spent a night in the garden of Gethsemane praying for His fate to be taken from Him. The Kingdom of God is there in our despair, and in our questioning, and in the outer darkness, because Jesus is all and in all.

The Kingdom of God is here amidst our brokenness. When we read Revelation, it’s easy to think of the Kingdom as being far off, far away somewhere other than here, a Kingdom of the future. That is both true and not true. We haven’t seen the end of days, so the Kingdom is still coming and not-yet. But Christ is already ascended to the Father and sits at His right hand. Jesus is in the Kingdom that John saw, in the city of gold as clear as glass, with the river of the water of life flowing through the middle of its street. That is the Kingdom that Jesus brought with Him, and the Kingdom is now.

The water of life flows from the throne of God and the Lamb, bringing healing to the nations, as fully as water flowed from Jesus’ pierced side. It is healing, it is life-giving, and it surrounds us always. The difference is that here, in this fallen world, the water is always mixed with the blood, and through them both God offers us the gift of abundant life. In the Kingdom, God’s light shines without any need for light of sun or lamp, because darkness has passed away. The Kingdom is brining eternal life in the midst of our sorrow and our woundedness, and light in the darkness. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men” (Rev 21:3); The Kingdom of God is among us.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lay Down Your Burdens

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30).

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes this promise after he upbraids those who reject His message by comparing them to the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom: Jesus has done mighty works there but the people did not repent (Mt 11:20-24). To those who do believe, He issues this almost unbelievable promise that we may lay down our burdens and He will give us rest.

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Jesus’ words speak us all, without exception. Each of us works, though we have many different kinds of jobs. Some of us labor with our hands, some of us do repetitive tasks all day, some of us invent things, some of us serve and engage in service, some of us heal people, and some of us do work that society doesn’t consider work but that, in so many ways, holds the fabric of our culture together. No matter how fantastic your job is, we all have days where the work just feels like work. We all have days where the work feels like more than we can handle or can bear. Life is difficult even when it is rewarding, and no one can really pretend otherwise.

We all carry burdens that weigh on us. We have all suffered hardship, and loss, and sorrow. At times, we are heavy-laden in our worries, our fears, our remembrances. The idea that God is a resting place, that God will lift those burdens and lead us home, away from our slavery to the difficulties of our lives, can be a great and sustaining source of hope. In some ways, I think we see Jesus’ promise as a new kind of Exodus, where we flee from what troubles us into the waiting arms of God.

As a child, I heard this passage read in church and believed that it meant God would help us put down our burdens so we wouldn’t have to carry them anymore. I suppose I believed that God would lift the heavy things off of me and make them disappear, go away, vanish in some kind of God-magic. As I got to be a bit older, the way I thought of those burdens changed and I hoped for somewhat less magical things, like that God would make it warmer in October when I was sleeping on the pavement. But I still believed that if I prayed hard enough God would take the bad things away: that I would feel happy instead of pretending to be happy, that my life would get easier, that the things I had to do I wouldn’t have to do anymore. It took me a lot of growing up before I realized both that God sometimes does give us more that we can carry, and that just because it’s heavy doesn’t mean He will take it away so we don’t have to hold it anymore.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.

Jesus’ promise to His disciples is two-sided: The promise of rest is tied to taking something up and not just laying something down. Jesus is gentle and lowly in heart, and we are to strive to be like Him. The interesting thing about God is that while He gives Himself to us freely God is not free. There is always a cost to discipleship because God’s love makes demands on us.

The promise isn’t, and can never be, that if we believe in God and trust in Him we can lay down our burdens and never experience difficulty again. God does not take away the fallen nature of this world, although the world is being transformed. Jesus asks us to take up our Cross and follow Him (Mt 16:24), and while he means that in some cases quite literally, we also understand that it means we are called to follow Him regardless of what hardships we may be experiencing or what burdens we may carry.

And you will find rest for your souls.

Jesus thanks God for revealing His wisdom to babes and hiding it from the wise and understanding (Mt 11:25-26) – God’s promise is profoundly counter-intuitive because it runs against the wisdom of the world, against the way that we expect things to work. The kind of rest He promises us isn’t the kind we think of when we imagine coming home at the end of a long day to take a bath and drink a glass of wine. He offers us something more precious and impossible to gain for ourselves: rest for our souls. The kind of burden he asks us to put down also isn’t the kind where we drop all our worldly cares and live trouble-free lives without responsibility or stress.

Before making His promise, Jesus speaks about the cities that did not repent, and later talks about removing causes of iniquity and sinners from His kingdom (Mt 13:41-43). He has already shown us that He has the power to forgive sins (Mt 9:1-8).

The burden Jesus promises to relieve us from is the crushing weight of our sins spoken about in Psalm 38: “For my iniquities overwhelm me; like a heavy burden they are too much for me to bear” (v. 4). In Jesus, the yoke of the law is broken as we enter into a new covenant where sins are not undone by sacrifice or by actions or by observance of a law too heavy to carry, but by the reckless abundance of God’s love.

We are called to put down our sins through repentance and to carry the burden of Christ instead. Where our sins were too heavy to bear, too hard to carry, Jesus promises us rest.

One aspect of depression can be an overwhelming sense of guilt. You can feel like you’re a terrible person. You can feel like you’ve done horrible things. You can be haunted by things you’ve done, or by the feeling that the world would be better off without you in it. Your mind goes over and over the ways in which you are failing in a spiral of negative thoughts. Guilt is a heavy, stubborn weight that eats away at you. People living with depression will sometimes find themselves constantly apologizing, leaving those around them perplexed as to why. You may blame yourself when anything goes wrong, and feel like you don’t deserve to be happy, or even to be alive. You don’t feel at peace. Some researchers believe that feelings of excessive guilt in people with active or remissive depression have to do with abnormalities in the subgenual cingulate cortex and the septal region of the brain, and the way they communicate with the anterior temporal lobe. Regardless of the causal mechanisms behind it, the truth is that overwhelming guilt can be profoundly difficult to bear.

I struggle with guilt, with feelings of unworthiness and worthlessness. I don’t understand how God can forgive me. I feel like it’s impossible. The people who first heard this promise certainly found it unbelievable: how could God just forgive you without an elaborate ritual action founded on the law? How could Jesus have the power to forgive your sins? It’s normal to struggle with sin and the weight of sinfulness, because we are all sinners. And to all of us God offers this unbelievable promise that Jesus can and will forgive us.

Sometimes, putting down your sins is difficult. Learning to lay down a burden is challenging when you’ve gotten used to its weight. Knowing that you’re forgiven can be hard to grasp with your heart, although you may believe it with all of your strength. There is a sense of wild abandon in trusting God to forgive us when we ourselves struggle so much with forgiveness. But still, compared to our sins, the yoke of Christ is easy, and the burden light, because in Jesus we have eternal life.

We are all called to genuinely repent, to turn aside from our old ways and put on the new life of Christ. In taking Jesus’ yoke upon ourselves we are given a freedom from our sins that demands more of us than any law. God’s forgiveness does not act upon us by merely changing our outward behavior to conform to a standard written in stone; God’s promise of forgiveness transforms and demands of you the entirety of your life and is written on the heart.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

How Deep the Waters

“Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through” (Ezek 47:5).

Ezekiel, like most prophesy in the Bible, has at times struck me either as obscure and alienating or as clarity and truth. At an intellectual level, I enjoy Ezekiel’s prophesy because of the vivid images, the images that both are seeing and emphasize seeing, and that speak to the desperate hope of an exiled people that they will come home. At an emotional level, I often feel frustrated because the text is confusing and sometimes much too literal for my liking.

Ezekiel 47:1-12 records Ezekiel’s vision of a great river flowing from the threshold of the temple. The vision itself is understood in the context of the Babylonian exile: the temple has been desecrated and destroyed, and the people carried away to a foreign land. For Ezekiel, the exile is the result of Israel’s sin, and her ongoing willingness to sin in breaking her word to the Babylonian king. The emotional core of the book is two-fold – the rebuilding of the temple, and the purification and return of the people to their land where God will rule over them. When Ezekiel sees the river flowing from the threshold of the temple, it is the near-culmination of his visions of a restored people, a restored worship, and the restored rule of God.

The river that flows down from the threshold of the temple begins as shallow waters, only ankle deep. As the man in his vision leads him the distance of a thousand cubits, Ezekiel find the water to be knee-deep. A thousand more, and the water is up to his hips. A thousand more, and he finds the waters too deep to pass through.

The image of waters too deep to pass through is a powerful one. Imagine standing in shallow water and walking gradually onward as the water rises and rises up your body, cool and smooth, pressing on your chest and finally coming up just below your chin. It’s a crushing, suffocating feeling to me, so much water, knowing that to go onward is to risk drowning. Sometimes depression can feel like a deep river, never-ending waters rising up, a strange sense of calm on the surface of the water as you’re drowning.

I imagine this is how exiled Jerusalem must have felt: a people finding themselves further and further from the temple, the waters rising against them, the wild and quiet desperation. The river carries you away from holiness, familiar places, and takes you in its rising depths to strange lands where you are a stranger. I imagine the loneliness of a people standing deep in the waters by themselves, trying to get by, trying to make sense of it. The feeling that you are being carried further and further away from God, and that He has let you be taken. Ezekiel has certainty because he’s been led in a vision, but those to whom he speaks are a people searching for hope and whom he believes must be changed.

The image of deepening waters has always frightened and disturbed me, but here in Ezekiel I find it turns around on itself. Although the river moves further and further from the temple, there is no doubt that it flows from it and that it is holy. As the river flows, deeper and deeper, it regenerates the sea and the plants around its shores, bringing fruit to the trees and life to growing things. (47:6-12).  The temple itself has been restored, the center of faith and of the people – a people who need to be submerged and purified by the depth and force of God’s transforming power, giving them new hearts that they might turn and return to God’s rule, that they might turn and live.

Ezekiel’s vision, strange as it is, speaks of the promise of newness of life and a restoration of righteousness, to the glory of God. I’m not sure why this passage drew me in, as I have so little to say about it, except that it made me see the image of rising waters in a new way.

Sometimes depression can feel as though you’re being carried further and further away from God, further and further away from holiness, from the center of your being. But if the swelling waters that carry you come from God, you are never truly far from Him no matter how far you travel. I don’t believe that depression comes from God in the way that the water flows from the temple – God does not create it to carry you away, to swallow you in its depths. But God is there in it, because God is the source of all goodness and even at the farthest points goodness remains.

Depression can make you feel like you’re drowning, quietly and alone. But the waters are also life-giving, fecund, and miraculous. I don’t believe that depression is some kind of gift from God that ultimately, on its own, has some great metaphysical meaning. But God can create goodness out of anything, even the darkest moments and the most frightening depths, if you allow Him that space. God is life-giving and calls us always to choose life. Unlike Ezekiel, we are not all prophets having visions. We do not know where we are going. But we trust that God, the live-giving Source, will be there.

Depression can turn your whole world upside down. But in saving the remnant God works profound change and leads His people on new paths of righteousness. I don’t believe that depression is a punishment from God for our sins, or that it will purify us, but I do believe that God’s love is transformative and at work in all times and places.

You may feel as though you are being carried away, as though you are too deep in the river, as though the sea presses up against you and you are drowning. But no matter the distance, or the depths, there is no river that cannot be passed through, because God has the power to part the waters.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Birds and the Foxes

I recently participated in a group exercise where we discussed issues of our own spirituality. We all picked a photo of an animal from a big pile in the center of a table – the idea being to choose one that somehow captured your spirit.

I chose the raccoon, ostensibly because its facial markings show it to be a kind of superhero-bandit. Obviously not the noblest of creatures, but for some reason I still picked it out of all the others.

His whiskers are also charming
First, we had to describe how we thought about our animals. I looked at my racoon’s downturned eyes and thought he looked sad. The raccoon sneaks around all night, going through peoples’ discarded things, looking for food enough to live on. Although they must live somewhere, I rarely see the raccoons in our neighborhood haunting the same place: they seem uprooted, unsettled, homeless.

The raccoon isn’t a beloved animal: no one really wants them around, and if you see one you’re more likely to chase it away with a broom than to take a picture for your album of cute, fluffy fauna. Though they must mate and reproduce (there does always seem to be a supply of them) the raccoon strikes me as solitary, alone, and lonely. It lives with uncertainty, never quite sure what will happen next, where it will go, or what it will find.

Having thought about the animal we chose, we were asked to change directions and think about our spiritual practices. To be honest, I haven’t really been doing much lately. I don’t spend time intentionally in silence with God, or in reflection, or contemplation, or even the more physical disciplines of meditation. There are reasons for this, some of which are better than others, and none of which are adequate. I do go to church every Sunday for the celebration of the Eucharist, so that’s a spiritual discipline. I guess you could call it the heart of my spirituality. If it has a backbone, it’s the Daily Office. I try to pray the Office every day, although I’m not always successful. Sometimes, on bad days, I just do the readings and skip all the prayers. If I’ve had a really bad week, you can find me on Saturday night doing all the readings I’ve missed, struggling with guilt and a crushing sense that the psalter has no end.

There are drawbacks to this kind of spiritual discipline. I am often alone, saying the Office in my room, and although I know there are people all over the country praying with these readings, I still feel isolated. There is little room for spontaneity, and the prayers at times can feel impersonal and non-creative. My prayer is filled with words, and has little space for silence. But it also has some amazing qualities: I can count on its regularity, the discipline of following a practice, the same words spoken over and over again giving you space to move between and within them. It is communal because this form of prayer has the weight of history and the communion of the Church behind it.

We were asked to consider how the animal we chose related to the ways we think about our own spiritual practices. It suddenly seemed obvious to me that they way I’d framed my spiritual practice was profoundly affected by the way I’ve felt like I’m sliding down something with no bottom and no edges, and the way that I feel inadequate to deal with it, and afraid.

Like the raccoon, I feel like I’m picking up something left behind by somebody else long ago, not necessarily for me, but rather something I’ve just happened to find. I don’t have to put any real effort into discovering something new or making something of my own because I have found it already there. Sneaking around at night, mostly alone, taking what I have found to survive.

Like the raccoon, I feel a little bit uprooted, homeless, alone. Not so much because of where I’ve ended up: I like my church. But maybe because of how I left my last community – without intentionality. I left them without saying goodbye, without closure. I quit the groups I belonged to by email because I didn’t have time to do it in person. There are loose ends: I still receive their emails, and somehow am still the administrator of their Facebook page (I don’t know how to unhook it from my account and transfer it to someone else, which is why it has no content). I felt like I was running, and since I haven’t really worked out how to feel about what happened, I have lingering emotions connected to not knowing where I’m going to go from here.

Sometimes, like my animal, I feel as though I am surviving but nothing more.

People occasionally ask me why I chose to become Anglican. It’s true that, when I was preparing to be received, my sponsor helped me study the historical texts of the Anglican church, the theologies and doctrines that shaped and changed our faith, the beliefs we have held, and the breadth and depth of what Anglicanism allows in our communal relationship with God and each other. Understanding the brainy part of our faith was, I’m sure, some kind of a factor. And it’s true that I enjoy the Eucharistic liturgy, both the comforting similarity of what I grew up with and the exciting differences that leave room for new sparks of insight and the pure, unadulterated joy of discovery. I love the political and ecclesiastical structure of our faith, and the positions of our Diocese on the issues we grapple with were also something I considered.

But the truth is I chose the Anglican church because I fell in love with the Daily Office. When I had just started attending an Anglican Eucharist in the middle of the week, and was going to Anglican and Roman Catholic churches simultaneously, I switched my personal daily prayer from a Cistercian prayer form for laypeople to the Morning, Midday, and Evening prayers found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I remember taking that prayer book with me as I sat the Holy Thursday and Good Friday morning vigils at my Catholic church. I moved to Common Worship when I started praying Morning and Evening prayer with the Diocesan Theological College, and I’ve used other forms, like the one found in the BAS. With each of these liturgies, I’ve found a sense of wonder and excitement and peace. I love the Daily Office lectionary, and the way it carries me through the years. I love the sense of history and timelessness, and the rich depth of the texts we read. I love the substantial engagement with the Bible and the beauty of the Canticles. O Lord, open our lips, and our mouth shall proclaim your praise. When I began to pray the Daily Office, I felt like I had come home.

It’s true that, at times, with only this form of prayer to keep me going, I feel like I’m barely surviving. But it does feed me. It does nourish me. I may have found it by the wayside, I may not add anything to it or create anything in it, but it keeps me going in its unceasing rhythm. It is there, every single day, even when I’m not, even when I can’t seem to get up the courage to go looking for it. The raccoon may have nowhere to lay its head, but I have a dwelling place and it sustains me.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Greatest of These Is Love

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3).

Faith, hope, and love: the fruits of faith, gifts of the Holy Spirit. While we may receive many other gifts from God – speaking in tongues, musical ability, preaching, prophesying, children’s ministry, the ability to transform fabric into something beautiful (the list could go one forever) – faith, hope, and love are the abiding gifts into which all others are subsumed. Paul is very clear that, of these three, love is the greatest. Without love, all other gifts are empty and meaningless.

When theologians talk about love, they often like to divide it into categories like Storge, Philia, Eros, and Agape. Agape is privileged in the love category because it’s selfless and purely other-directed. But we don’t really need these categories, because Paul tells us what love is, and its qualities are true of many kinds of love. This list may strike you as familiar if you’ve ever been to a Western-rite Christian wedding, but bear with me.

“Love is patient and kind” (1 Cor 13:4). Love doesn’t rush people, it doesn’t get angry in a flash, even when the guy next to you on the train is leaning on your arm and snoring. Love pushes aside frustration. This isn’t to say that because love is patient it waits endlessly for you: love pushes you further than you thought you could go, demands your best of you, forces you to be more. Love is kind: it assumes the best, and is yourself acting your best, doing as you would have others do unto you. It is in the small things and the big things, the things that are expected and even demanded of you, and the things that go beyond expectation.

“Love is not jealous or boastful” (1 Cor 13:4). To love another is to embrace them in their happiness without grasping after it for yourself, to encounter a person for themself and not as a platform for your own self-expression. Love is a relationship that accepts both of you without resentment, and without seeking your own self-advancement at the cost of another person’s integrity.

Love “is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right” (1 Cor 13:5-6). To love someone is to not assume that you are right or better or more important than them. Love builds up because it is not puffed up. Love allows for the possibility that you’re wrong and that you might have to say you’re sorry. Love doesn’t resent other people for you being wrong, or for demanding better of you. Love doesn’t mean accepting sin or wrongdoing on your own part or others’, but it does mean learning to love them through it, both by staying true to what you believe and by not allowing it to change the way that you love another.

Paul defines love by what it is and isn't, even though in many ways it slips through our grasp: love is a great and precious and glorious mystery.  

Like many people living with depression, I have often had difficulty with love. We live in a love-obsessed and love-saturated culture, surrounded by dating websites and pictures of perfect families and drawings where God looks like Santa Clause. Self-help manuals populate our bookstores, telling us how to better love our partners, our children, our parents, and ourselves. Love has become a kind of Holy Grail of self-fulfillment – all you need is love.

For myself, a sign I might be heading for a more serious depressive episode is increased affective flattening – a technical psychiatric term specifying blunted emotional responses to everyday stimuli, including and especially happy things. I don’t feel happy when happy things happen, and sometimes I don’t feel sad when devastating things happen. This feeling that you’re living in emotional bubble-wrap is relatively common among people with chronic or prodromal major depression, but it isn’t talked about as much as the other, more overt signs of emotional breakdown. Among other things, what this means is that I don’t necessarily feel love. I don’t feel that you love me, and I don’t feel that I love you.

I’ve struggled with feeling that maybe I can’t love. I’ve wondered, at times, if because I don’t feel love whether love is a capacity I lack. I wonder about what that means for my life as a Christian: I am called to love the Lord my God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength, and my neighbor as myself, but what if I don’t love them? I am called to love my enemies, but what if I can’t even love my friends? Paul is clear that, without love behind them, all our gifts are nothing, all that we bring to God and the Church is nothing, and by our practice of faith we gain nothing. If I don’t feel love, am I anything more than a loud empty noise?

But love, while it often encompasses and involves emotion, is far more – and far other – than what we feel. Love, as we see in Paul’s descriptions, is about how we choose to behave toward others. Love is treating people with dignity and respect regardless of how we feel. Love is choosing selflessness, and kindness, and truth over simple self-desire and the easy solution. Not feeling the emotions of love doesn’t mean that you don’t have love. Love is about the way you choose to live your life.

This doesn’t mean that love is easy for people living with depression. Love isn’t easy at the best of times. We’ve all loved someone and lost our temper over something that shouldn’t have made us angry. We’ve all disappointed someone we love. We’ve all been judgemental. We’ve all chosen our own needs over those of a loved one. Relationships can be frustrating and challenging and it’s easy, in those moments of difficulty or disagreement or just plain exhaustion, for love to fail. We’ve all had those moments where we visualized strangling the snoring, leaning stranger on the train, not to mention the flashes of anger toward those who have genuinely hurt us, or whom we just plain dislike.

Of course love is difficult if you struggle with an illness that can leave you short-tempered, tired, and prone to negativity. But love is difficult for everyone. We all fail at it, and that doesn’t change the fact that love is a choice we must make anew every day, every hour, and every minute of our lives. We have a responsibility to choose love regardless of the cost. We have a responsibility to choose love after we have failed at love.

There are times that we don’t feel as if we can love, that we don’t feel capable of making that choice, of giving ourselves to another. There are times when we feel mired in darkness and despair, swallowed by some strange creature and not knowing when – or if – we will be free. But who is to know the language of our souls, that maybe under the darkness we are choosing love even though we don’t know it? Hidden deep inside us are things that God sees in the dark, and that one day will be shown in the light.

We are never alone in trying to love. When we are failing, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). We do not stand alone in choosing love, in trying to love, in striving for love. Jesus preached the Gospel with His face set towards Jerusalem – God has faith. Jesus told us about the Kingdom which is coming – God has hope. And God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son – God has love. And God’s love is strong enough to carry us through the darkness.  

“So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor: 13:13).

Saturday, October 12, 2013

It Will Be Opened

“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Mt 7:7-8).

In the choirs I belonged to, we used to sing a hymn called “Seek Ye First” that incorporated this second verse:

Ask and it shall be given unto you;
seek and ye shall find;
knock and it shall be opened unto you.
Alleluia, alleluia.

It’s a beautiful, happy little song about God’s promises to us: that God will be there when two or three are gathered in His Name; that the door shall be opened when you knock; that if you seek, you will find. The hymn frames it all positively – these are the things God will do for you, rejoice and be glad! But if you’ve spent some time asking, and asking (and asking) God for something and haven’t seen hide nor tail of it yet, it’s tempting to question God’s so-called promises and fling your faithful hymnal into a woodchipper.

Ask, and it will be given you.

In Mathew’s gospel, this saying is in the middle of a list of aphorisms – pithy Jesus-sayings that stand on their own but that are sometimes elaborated with short allegory. Jesus continues with a story about a father who knows how to give good gifts: who, when asking his father for a fish, receives a snake instead (Mt 7:9-11)? What goes unspoken, and has been pointed out by many people far wiser than me, is that if you ask God for a snake He probably still won’t give you one. We cannot ask God for just anything and expect to receive it, because God is not a wish-granting gumball machine Who spits out whatever you ask for if you only put in the right change. If we ask God for things that aren’t good for us, surely He will not give them to us merely to keep His promise that what we ask for we shall receive. Even when we ask God for the ‘right’ things, for the things we’re sure we want and believe are good for us, who are we to know? Perhaps God does not grant us all we ask for for reasons we can’t begin to understand.

If God is the Good Father, then He only gives good gifts, which are not necessarily the same things we're asking for…

Seek, and you will find.

What is it that I am seeking? Most obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time seeking healing: reading all the books, trying all the tricks, at times somewhat desperately. Before this saying, Jesus tells us about all the things that the gentiles seek: food, clothing for the body, certainty about tomorrow (7:25-34). While He promises that God indeed knows these things are important, seeking them is not meant to be the goal of our lives. It’s a difficult realization that maybe I haven’t found what I’m searching for because I’m looking for the wrong things, in the wrong places…

Knock, and it will be opened to you.

To me, this has always felt like the biggest promise out of the three – if only I can find the door, and knock on it, it will be opened. A combination of seeking and receiving yields this ultimate promise that God will strip away obstacles, open doors, remove boundaries. God Who breaks down the walls and brings light into the darkness, revealing so many possibilities. I have often felt hemmed-in, broken, and constrained by my life, my reality, and my circumstances, so the idea that God will provide passage and spaciousness is deeply attractive. I have spent many years asking God to open the way, but maybe I haven’t found the right door yet…

I struggled with writing this post, and I don’t think it’s very good. The truth is that I have trouble with this passage in Matthew because although I believe in the reality of God’s promises I’ve struggled with feeling like they’re actually crap. One of the problems with depression, besides from all the self-doubting, is that I haven’t had a lot of time to feel like God is giving me the important things I’ve asked for. I haven’t asked for anything over-the-top, like a unicorn; mostly just some clarity about God’s plan for my life and maybe to feel a little better, to be a little better. I can’t help but feel disappointed, especially when confronted with passages like this one from Matthew. Why not for me, Lord? Why not me?

As I sat with this text over the last week, wondering why I was having so many problems with it, I realized that I was actually reading it wrong. As much as this passage is about God’s promises to us, it also isn’t really about that at all. This is the Sermon on the Mount: it’s about discipleship and what we should be doing.

Knock, and it will be opened to you.

We are meant to be knocking on the door to the kingdom of heaven by doing God’s work. Jesus tells us that not everyone who calls Him Lord will enter the Kingdom, but those who have done God’s will (7:21-23). Discipleship means working to discern God’s will for us and going ahead and doing it, regardless of any other concerns we may have, however important they may be. The Lord knows that it’s important, but discipleship means putting aside what stands in the way and learning to knock on the right door. The way to God will be opened when we put God first.

Seek, and you will find.

The Bible is full of stories about God seeking and finding us: God is the shepherd looking for the lost sheep, the woman looking for the missing coin. Beloved of God, we too are meant to be seeking, and as God seeks us we are called to seek Him. Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (7:33). Seeking God first, we shall find Him, and much more. In a relationship with God that puts Him in the center of our lives, we find the meaning of our discipleship and build our houses on a firm foundation.

Ask, and it will be given you.

We are called to ask God for God, and we will receive Him. God is the deepest desire of the human heart, but we deny and push Him aside so easily in our concern for worldly things, like bread, clothing, and answers about tomorrow. Discipleship is a relationship of mutual desire, and we are called never to stop seeking God.

Jesus calls us to a radical discipleship that has no regard for our limitations and problems: we are meant to be seeking God and his righteousness. But this doesn’t mean that our struggles are beneath God or that we shouldn’t bother Him with them. We are called to bring our whole selves to God and give ourselves over into His care. We are called to perseverance in our asking, to trust that God can handle our doubts, worries, needs, and despair. Life is filled with longing and sadness, as well as joy and love, and as we express these emotions to God in prayer our relationship with Him becomes deeper. We bring ourselves to God not so that we receive solutions to our problems, but so that God can give us the gift of Himself. We should not pull away from God because our lives don't match our expectations, or because of some idea that we have about God's promises; we must seek God as we are called to do, which is in every moment and with all our being.

We are called to humility, that we may admit to God, ourselves, and others that we don’t have everything and can’t do it all on our own. We can find only when we are truly willing to seek. We are called to empty ourselves of our presumptions, our preoccupations, and our arrogant desire to do and find everything – to empty ourselves so that we may be filled. We are called to pursue, to knock, to ask, so that God can reveal the way. Asking, seeking, and knocking are all spiritual disciplines through which we realize our discipleship as God gives Himself to us.

God gives us Himself, and we must not throw that gift in the mud because it isn’t what we hoped for. While we may hope for many things, behind it all there is but one true Hope.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Difficult Leper

“But Naaman was angry, and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper’” (2 Kgs 5:11).

Naaman is a non-believing foreigner who finds himself in dire straits and turns to the God of Israel for help. A great, powerful commander of Syrian armies, he is described as a man of valour who has God’s favour, but also a leper. In the narrative of the Bible, he is not just a sick foreigner, but unclean. His life is a study in contradiction because he is revealed as both beloved and cursed by God, his life embedded in a narrative bigger than himself.

Naaman learns of the great prophet Elisha from a girl he has kidnapped in a raid against Israel, and is sent by the Syrian king to the king of Israel to be healed. Naaman brings with him treasure and a letter from his king. He has nothing else except his belief in the holy man he’s heard about from a slave.

At first, the king of Israel freaks out, thinking the Syrian king has sent him Naaman as some kind of horrible dare: obviously, he’s trying to start a fight because I am not God and I can’t cure this man.  The funny thing about kings of Israel is that they rarely think about their own prophets.

Luckily, Elisha hears about Naaman, and tells him to come on over so that he’ll know there’s a prophet in Israel.  Naaman comes with his entourage and stops at the door of Elisha’s house, expecting great things. Like, great, explosive, amazing things, that make him feel as special as he believes he is and end with his being cured of leprosy.

Imagine his disappointment when Elisha sends out a messenger to tell him to bathe in the Jordan seven times and be cured. Naaman is angry because he thinks he rates a prophet and not a messenger. Because he thinks he rates a spectacular, Technicolor cure but instead is handed a simple task he has to do himself. He is important, and Elisha has made him feel small. He stomps off in a huff, going back to his own country.

You should check out the story for yourself, found in 2 Kings 5:1-14: there is 100% more nudity in the Bible version than mine (not really).

Naaman’s disappointment is a human one: his problem is so big, so all-consuming, and so life-defining, of almost mystical importance, that he won’t feel satisfied with a simple solution. The solution needs to be complicated, involved, and big – as big as the problem. How do you let go of something that has consumed you when the solution has no psychological resonance? You’re stuck holding the ragged ends, saying to yourself, ‘Was that it?’ A weird problem-hangover besets you…can you accept the answer that doesn’t look big enough to be an answer? How do you deal with the fallout of having suffered for so long when solving the issue turns out to be no big deal?

When our problems are big and complicated and consuming, we want big and complicated solutions. We’re looking for a kind of balance between the problem and the answer, a weight and counterbalance. How can something so simple be a solution? It’s much easier to believe in the big, messy, epic solution than in the easy one.

Naaman doesn’t believe in the solution, not at first. He is indignant, insulted: how dare you think that my problem isn’t big and real and in need of a big and real remedy? How dare you make fun of me as if I am to be trifled with? My problem will not be solved through childish, simplistic gestures.

Luckily, his servants (being cleverer than him, as servants so often are) see through his touchy feelings: “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it” (5:13)? Hearing them, Naaman goes down and dips himself seven times in the Jordan, and is made clean (5:14).

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the glory of what God is offering us because it hides in the small things, dwarfed by the struggles we live with, and we are too busy thinking we know what God’s work looks like to recognize it when it isn’t what we expect. Naaman certainly doesn’t see it.

He doesn’t see the presumption of a high-ranking officer from a neighbouring country asking a foreign God for healing – all he sees is his own power. But here, through Elisha, the God of Israel proves His might and mercy to one not chosen to be among His people.

He doesn’t see the irony of a Hebrew prophet offering healing to a man who represents their oppressors – a king strong enough to order their sovereign about. Naaman is part of an historic drama played out in the way God responds to His people’s infidelities, and Naaman does not know it.

Naaman sees an un-respectful and unconventional prophet, but he does not see his own disrespect: arriving at Elisha’s home, he sits upon his chariot and doesn’t move, expecting to be waited upon.

Told to bathe in the Jordan, all Naaman sees is its unworthiness compared to the mighty rivers of Damascus. He doesn’t know the history of these waters; that they are holy; that to enter them is to come into the promised land given to the twelve tribes whose stones are sunk in its depths; that to bathe seven times is to emerge a new creation. Naaman doesn’t see it because he’s too caught up in his idea of what a miracle should look like.

Sometimes, when living with depression, we wait for a miracle without actually doing anything about getting one. Like Naaman, we sit on our chariots, content to wait for God to come to us. But God seldom does exactly what we expect Him to do, especially when we just expect God to know what we want and give it to us.

Sometimes we’re all too eager to try the grand gesture in the hope that our depression will be cured, like climbing the stairs to St. Joseph’s Oratory on your knees (what they don’t mention in the promotional pilgrim material are all the tiny little rocks).

Sometimes we’re too caught up in looking for the Big Fix to see what God is actually offering us. Like Naaman, we have to learn to see beyond our preconceived notions and embrace the messengers God is sending us.

Wrapped up in depression and our own personal narratives, it’s easy to forget that our lives are part of something much bigger and that God’s work in our lives actually isn’t all about us. Naaman’s healing, while it obviously helps him, is more about God than it is about him. Naaman’s miracle is for the sake of God’s glory, that he – and those who hear of him – may know there is a prophet in Israel (5:8).

Naaman’s transformation is more than skin-deep: he returns to the prophet humbled, getting down off his chariot and eager to bring God’s power back to his homeland (5:15-19). God’s healing does not merely remove illness: it transforms lives. Like Naaman, we are called for God’s purposes. Like Naaman, we are called to recognize God’s work in the seemingly unworthy message from the unlikely messenger, that we might give our lives more fully over to Him in faith and trust.

Listening to God can be as easy and as difficult and going down to bathe in the Jordan. But we have to learn to swallow our pride. We have to learn to let go of our expectations. Getting to the Jordan means going through the desert, and it is never possible without God’s help.

Friday, September 27, 2013

God of Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5:4).

The beatitudes in Matthew are difficult to talk about because they come off as being so straight-forward: we see the present and the future juxtaposed against each other: an unpleasant reality and an eschatological end. The text holds forth a kind of theodicy because it tells us our present suffering will be justified by the good to which we will attain as peoples’ fortunes are reversed. The beatitudes don’t come off as a moral imperative, but more like a truth of how things will one day be. Anyway, that’s what the commentaries tell me.

I have several problems with this.  

When God declares something blessed, He isn’t just sitting there throwing words around like so much beautiful, empty filler. God is making that thing blessed, not just in some hypothetical future to assuage our worries with promises of a glorious apocalypse, but here and now. Blessed are those who mourn.

How can mourning be blessed? To lose someone or something, to feel that raw pain ripping at your heart, how is that good? 1

Blessings are complicated, shifting and moving and living things that don’t respect boundaries like good and bad; weaving in between them like water, blessings reshape reality by surrounding it with God’s love and slowly wearing away at the jagged edges. God’s blessing, like the sun, shines in places we would not conceive (Mt 5:43-45).

To mourn, to lose, is already a blessing because it means we have had and loved. To have loved so deeply, to have cherished…it is a blessing that loss does not take away. The spaces of our loss are filled with memories etched deep inside of us that sadness cannot dim, that the passage of time cannot undo, that healing does not take away. We pass through the grief holding on to what was; through coming to terms with loss our love is embedded within us.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. There is no comfort, not really, in the end times, because there is no suffering: every tear has been wiped away (Rev 21:1-4). With no sorrow, with no mourning, there can be no comfort. But God’s comfort isn’t always a warm fuzzy blanket enfolding us so we can drift off into some kind of blissful, forgetful sleep like someone who’s drunk from the Lethe. God’s comfort can be profoundly uncomfortable, profoundly painful. God is with you in the hard moments, and that is comfort, but God does not strip us of our humanity and all that entails. God does not destroy us, and what we are, for the sake of merely assuaging our hurt. We go through it together – I go through it with Him – and I am comforted because in the depths of myself where I do not dare to go I am not alone.

Allowing yourself to mourn strips you bare: you are raw in your grief, emotionally exposed, vulnerable, and real. You are not hiding behind a wall or a fa├žade, concealing your love and your loss from yourself. Grief is an openness, to yourself and to God, a crack through which light gets in. We encounter God in the depths of our loss. As we are at our realest, and at our most vulnerable, our hearts can open fully to that love which we do not deserve, cannot earn, and will never lose. The beatitudes tell us about the blessings that come to those who are real, stripped down, raw and bare and honest. God is at work in our willingness to be fully human, to listen for Him, to love, and to experience suffering and loss: blessed are those who mourn.

The Gospel makes demands on us; it is alive and transforming us, so how could it not? There is an imperative in God’s blessing that cannot be ignored. We are called to mourn our losses, to not bury them or minimize them or trivialize our loves because it would be easier. Mourning is difficult because feeling loss is uncomfortable, and people find all sorts of ways to numb the pain rather than going through it – trusting that they can go through it – and finding true healing and peace. Mourning is difficult because it exposes us to truths about ourselves. Mourning is difficult because facing ourselves in those spaces, and facing God in those spaces, can be terrifying. Admitting the extent of loss can be difficult even when it would mean a deeper and more profound relationship with ourselves and with God.

I have mourned many people in my life without reserve. I have mourned things that happened to people I knew and came to love, even over brief periods. I have mourned for people who did not recover from mental illness as I watched it steal parts, and sometimes all, of their lives. But I am coming to realize there are losses in my own life I haven’t had the courage to mourn.

I haven’t mourned for living with an inexplicable sadness that sometimes swallows me whole and which I do not fully understand, though it has certainly been a loss.

I haven’t mourned for the person I was, though I will never be the same, and in some ways I think that’s a good thing.

I have tried to use my losses to help other people, to be something to someone, but I haven’t grieved them.

I have never really mourned the times I was raped. Part of it is trying not to think about the emotional impact it has and has had on me, to brush it aside as things gone, to bury it deeply; but I have allowed it to surround me like water, wearing away at the edges and taking the place of God’s comfort, where God would be if I was willing to admit the painful spaces of loss and regret. Part of it is because I blame myself for not being more careful and more concerned with protecting what God had given me to cherish, and I am ashamed. Because I don’t love myself or have compassion for myself in those ways, I don’t trust God to love me either, and I haven’t asked – really asked – for His forgiveness.

Words are difficult. I rarely use the word rape in writing, and almost never say it aloud: it is raw, and open, and ugly, and I am afraid.

I can’t have truly forgiven my rapists if I haven’t allowed my loss to be a part of myself, and I want to forgive them.

Jesus speaks the beatitudes as the Anointed One prophesied in Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound [and] to comfort all who mourn; [Instead] of your shame you shall have a double portion, instead of dishonor you shall rejoice in your lot; therefore in your land you shall possess a double portion; yours shall be everlasting joy” (Isa 61:1-2, 7).

Blessed are those who mourn.

God makes promises not for the future but to transform us through the power of His blessing; God utters blessings that do not erase what has gone before but that hold us by His side as we open ourselves to mourning and loss, together.

1 The DSM-V, the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, appears to have removed grief as an exclusionary criteria from Major Depressive Episode. This means that people who are mourning a recent loss can be diagnosed with a mental illness on the basis of that grief. I have several problems with this.