Sunday, May 26, 2013

Not Empty, But Full

“Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:20-21).

Naomi calls out to God in pain: I have lost everything. I was full, and you have made me empty. I had, and now I do not have.

Before these words, we read the story of Naomi going to Moab with her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Her husband dies, and her two sons take Moabite wives, dying 10 years later themselves. Naomi returns to her own land, and Ruth chooses to go with her. Upon returning, Naomi utters these heartbreaking words: “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.”

One of the hallmarks of our modern understanding of depression is the recognition of cognitive change: people gripped by depression often cannot and do not see the good in things. Life narratives are re-written under the oppression of darkness to form a trajectory of despair. The person who is depressed cannot remember feeling happy, or idealizes the past as a perfect, unrepeatable time whose wonders have disappeared. The person who is depressed does not see the blessings in their life. This cognitive bias toward perceiving all things through the lens of sadness and worry is typical, and knowing that helps us begin to comprehend why and how people suffering from emotional mental illnesses often do not perceive their own lives with anything approaching reality.

Naomi doesn’t see her life fully and truthfully. She says “I went away full,” and while it’s true that there was a lot of good in her life it’s also true that she and her family were driven from their homes by famine. She was literally not full. Naomi says, “the Lord has brought me back empty,” and it’s true she has lost much. But she is also returning to a people who have been blessed with food (1:6). She is literally returning to be full.

Most importantly, Naomi has not lost her family and received nothing in return. She had gained Ruth. Ruth, who leaves everything behind to journey with her mother-in-law. Ruth, whose love and devotion propel her into the unknown.

Naomi tries to send her daughters-in-law away again and again. She has so many excuses, but probably the most truthful is that she feels cursed by God and they don’t fit into her self-pitying narrative: “it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone forth against me” (1:13; emphasis mine). She hurts and sadness them and tries to send them away, as though the future of a childless widow is any more certain in their homeland than with her. She is wrapped up in her own sadness and grief.

Though Orpah turns aside, Ruth stays, saying, “Entreat me not to leave you or return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you” (1:16-17). Her profession of love sounds like marriage and covenant. Like covenant, it is profoundly unearned and unearnable, given freely in the binding together of one who loves selflessly and one who needs greatly.

Naomi doesn’t return empty, but she feels she does because she doesn’t see her blessings. She receives Ruth and her devotion silently, without thanks or remark. Like so many swallowed by the darkness, Naomi doesn’t see the good things. It’s true of so many people living with depression: we tend to see our lives as stories of decline, without hope of repair, and we don’t see the blessings we’ve been given because we don’t feel blessed. We have a lot to learn from the story of Naomi and Ruth.

Like Naomi, we’ve lost a lot. Like Naomi, we have a Ruth. Ruth figures the love of God: God Who binds Himself in covenant with us in selfless, abundant love. God Who gives Himself to us without need of recognition or thanks, and for Whom we can never do anything to earn the love that is given. And, like Naomi, we never journey alone no matter how much we protest we’d prefer to.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to be blind like Naomi, silently taking love for granted as it works itself out in our lives. God commands us to rejoice, to give thanks, to praise, all of which help us to embrace the blessing of His love. But in those dark, bitter moments where we cannot thank Him, God is there, loving us beyond measure. In realizing this, we can begin to create new narratives.

Though God’s presence doesn’t erase or undo sorrow and tragedy – just as Ruth, who is more than seven sons, cannot bring them back – the love of God is hidden in the midst of the darkness, catching us on its branches as a wildness of joy.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Even the Demons

“The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’” (Lk 10:17)

When you live with the darkness of depression, it’s easy to turn to the Bible and despair. It’s easy to read passages like this one and say to yourself: If God has power over everything, why hasn’t He made me better yet? Do I not believe? Have I not prayed? Why has the Lord not cast this darkness from me as the disciples cast out demons in His name? Does not God have power over this darkness?

There are many facile answers to these questions. We can say that depression, and other mental illnesses, are not demonic so this is not a useful model. That’s true. Though depression remains to a large extent unknown and mysterious, we can be pretty confident in saying that a person isn’t depressed because they’re possessed by the devil. But this doesn’t take away the question of why God doesn’t cure the faithful.

We can say that, as with the disciples’ instructions to shake the dust from their feet where they are unwelcome and to heal the sick where they are (Lk 10:8-11), that faithful Christians who aren’t healed simply don’t have enough faith. But this ignores the truth that many Christians suffer from depression while believing in and worshipping God. Though it is of course impossible for anyone but God to see into a person’s heart, we can’t simply dismiss those who are suffering as victims of a lack of belief.

We can say that God simply hasn’t cured people because it isn’t part of His plan, as it is true in this passage: the disciples are sent only to a few towns that Jesus intends to visit, but not all over every town in Palestine (Lk 10:1). Now, finally, we are getting somewhere nearer the crux of things. It is all about God’s plan, isn’t it? God cured me of my depression, God didn’t cure me of my depression: who’s to know why one way or the other, except to refer to God’s mysterious and unknowable ways?

This both is and isn’t an answer. And like so much of what it means to keep the faith from within the darkness, it is less than satisfying even when it is the truth. It’s probably the reason people hate theodicy. How can you reconcile the fact that God allows suffering with the real feeling that you don’t want Him to, and it would at least be nice to have a solid, case-by-case explanation?

Why does God not make the darkness go away? Why doesn’t God cure everyone’s cancer, set everyone’s broken limbs, end hunger, end grief? Why, for me personally, will God not take this burden from me though I know it is possible were He to wish it?

Luke 10:1-20 tells us about the sending of the seventy, the preaching and healing they are called by Jesus to do. It tells us that the kingdom of heaven is near (v 9). It tells us that the seventy healed, that they had power over the demons, and that they condemned and abandoned those who did not express faith in Jesus.

This passage gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ ministry and the ongoing work of God for and in the Kingdom, a kingdom both here and not-yet, near and impossibly far, a world both God’s and apart from God. It cannot be said that the seventy are curing people and casting out demons for people’s own sakes. It is for the glory of God and the work of the kingdom as that work is embodied in the ministry of being sent out.

As Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Lk 10:2). Everyone is the harvest, but the labourers are few: though the power of the kingdom is manifested to those who already believe, the passage is more clearly directed at those whom God wishes to send out. It is about the power of God for the labourers, that in the name of the Lord they can cast out demons, and not about those who have been delivered. The power of the kingdom is first and foremost to call and send disciples. The work of curing others and casting out demons in Jesus’ name convicts them of God’s power, but says nothing about fixing everything that is wrong with their lives or eliminating their suffering and hardship by one iota. They are sent with no money, no extra clothes, and no supplies for the journey; they are sent to be rejected, to experience hunger and loneliness and the despair of having failed. The seventy experience the power of God and the nearness of the kingdom not in a release from suffering but in plunging into it for the sake of God’s work.

God’s power on earth points to the greater reality of what has already been accomplished: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Lk 10:18). Power over demons and the gift of healing draw their strength from these cosmic truths working themselves out in a creation that is being renewed. But we still live in a broken, fallen world, and for all of God’s power manifested among us we are not free from suffering and are not meant to be. Though we are meant to ask and ask again and again for God’s help and healing, as Paul did when stricken with a thorn in his side, more often than not God’s inscrutable purposes are not for the removal of our suffering but that we continue the work to which we are called. Our suffering is transformed through God’s grace into the outworking of God’s kingdom when we, as labourers, go out in the midst of this darkness to proclaim the kingdom in Jesus’ name.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Our High Priest

“For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Heb 2:18).

One of the things I’ve experienced most in my life as a Christian because of mental illness is a deep sense of isolation. Because no one ever discussed what it feels like, or means theologically, to live a life burdened with an incomprehensible sadness, it feels like I am experiencing this by myself, completely alone. Although I know that I am far from the only Christian to struggle with depression and PTSD, I nevertheless feel like there is no one to share my struggle with, who will (or can) listen to my fears, my hopes and dreams, my sometimes feelings of despair.

The Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 2 (vv 5-9), shows us a Christology springing from Psalm 8, where Jesus for a time has been made lower than the angels, but now has been glorified through his suffering and death. Jesus has “taste[d] death” (2:9), fed on its bitter reality. It is not a metaphor to say that our God has died, our God has suffered. “[By] the grace of God” (2:9) he tasted it…but tasted it in separation from God, in the desperate and lonely cry to the Father: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Hebrews 2:10-18 outlines a theology of Christ as the High Priest who was made perfect in suffering, and who saves us because he is like us and shares fully in our human nature. The passage goes on to explain that by sharing in our nature, Jesus destroyed death by dying, and delivers those who are in bondage to death. To be our “faithful high priest in the service of God” (2:17) he was made like unto us in every way.

The Suffering God, our faithful High Priest…Jesus shares in our suffering to save us. Jesus suffers and dies on the Cross, an admittedly and thankfully foreign experience to many of us, though we too one day shall die.

Does Jesus feel fear like I do? Does Jesus feel suffocated by his life, like he can’t go on? Is Jesus overwhelmed with sadness? Whose suffering does he have a share in? I know that Jesus is tempted in the desert and doesn’t give up. I know that Jesus, in the garden before he is given up to be tried, is crushed by the weight of what is upon him, what is coming, so much so that he asks the Father to take the burden from him. I know that on the Cross, Jesus feels forsaken and alone. Jesus holds this suffering within him in the Resurrection and Ascension: our risen Lord bears the marks of crucifixion in his flesh.

I am not alone in the darkness, though I feel I am alone. God does not abandon me, but shares in my suffering. So too, those who suffer share in the suffering of God: in overcoming suffering and death without leaving it behind, Jesus invites us to have a part in his risen life that embraces the darkness as well as the light. Our lives, hidden in Christ, are deeply transformed, but the new life in Baptism does not dispel suffering and death, for the new world has not yet come. Suffering is transformed because it is assumed into God, but not because it has vanished.

I am not alone in the darkness, for Christ is with me. I can’t necessarily feel it. Most of the time I can’t feel it, and that’s part of what it means to live with depression. The aloneness weighs on me although I am not alone. But it is a comfort to know that Jesus’ priesthood is at work in the darkness, redeeming and transforming in ways not yet revealed. If by the grace of God Jesus tasted suffering and death for everyone, then the grace of God is not necessarily a comfortable, happy thing to receive. This too is grace, the darkness and despair, as it works God’s unknowable purposes with Jesus at our sides.

I will never welcome the darkness. But in the midst of the darkness, I will welcome God.