Things We Don’t Talk About: Jesus and Depression
Have you ever found a scripture that changed your life?
I did, and it’s not even Jesus who said it. It’s not from the gospels or Paul.
It’s actually our psalm today, Psalm 84.
Take a look back at it in your bulletin if you’d like—sometimes the psalm can kind of speed past us in the service and we don’t always absorb it—and I’ll tell you how Psalm 84 and I began our journey together.
I’ve dealt with clinical depression all of my adult life.
There were signs that it was emerging in high school and then it really crashed in on me catastrophically my freshman year in college.
The bottom dropped out of my mind and spirit quite abruptly.
Those of you who have dealt with this yourselves or walked this with family members know what it’s like to see the world in grayscale, as though your body has somehow biologically lost the ability to see color.
You know what it’s like to have to fight every single day to get out of bed, to struggle to fulfill the most basic responsibilities, to feel your world shrinking smaller and smaller around you.
You know what it’s like to feel suicide creeping closer and closer, tempting you with the idea of such blessed rest and peace, until the only things holding you back are the pain of your friends and family and frankly, the effort it would actually take to kill yourself.
Most people who have suicidal ideation have one specific temptation for how they would go about it.
For me it was driving my car into the supports of an overpass on the freeway.
At one point my junior year I had to give my car keys to my roommate because I didn’t trust myself not to do it.
I know I’m not the only one who’s been there.
There are more people in this room who have been in that place than we probably realize, and for sure every single one of us knows someone who has.
When I crash landed there, I went to campus health, started working with a counselor and tried every anti-depressant on the market.
Nothing seemed to help.
I had one lifeline and I held on to it with all of my strength: the church.
I drove back to the city from my college town to every service offered at my home parish in Kansas City, not just Sunday morning but every feast day, any weekday service I could manage.
I went to the noon Eucharist on campus (I was the only student there with the priest and mostly retired faculty) and the Sunday night and weeknight campus ministry services.
I spent hours and hours in the chapel by myself begging God to help me, to save me from drowning, to teach me how to live like a normal person because I somehow couldn’t be a regular carefree college kid.
And of course all this churchgoing made me super popular in the dorms.
It didn’t take many iterations of my turning down a trip to the bars for a few hours in the chapel to shrink my circle of friends to pretty small.
The strange and amazing thing about it all as I look back is that it is in this atmosphere of complete poverty of the self, of lostness and despair and abject pain, that my vocation was born.
And it came to life in the words of this psalm.
“How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.”
These words resonated in me like no scripture had before.
I was the sparrow, and I had found my home by the altars of God.
I started to know, even in the deepest self-doubt, that God had something for me to do, and that something was to devote myself to God’s people and God’s house in every possible way.
The church was my haven, my sanctuary, my port in a storm, my last handhold on life to be honest with you, and I started to know that an important part of my life would be to help make it a haven and a sanctuary for others.
Several years later when I doing seminary visits to try to figure out where to go, I went to the 10 p.m. Compline service at Christ Church, New Haven.
At that service, the church is entirely dark, lit only by hundreds of votive candles scattered around the nave.
And that night, my eye was drawn to one little votive candle illuminating the face of a stone-carved saint.
And I thought, “That’s me. I’m that little candle. I’m only a tiny light, only one among hundreds, but I can be a tiny light that might lead the way for someone else into a place of safety, of shelter, of grace, to illuminate the face of hope.”
And it became my prayer that God would make me in my priesthood like that little candle, nestled by the side of the altars of God like Psalm 84 says.
What I’ve been leading up to though is actually how differently I felt about Psalm 84 when it came up in our lectionary today.
The first two verses are still true for me—the church is my love and my haven and my inspiration and the crucible for all my creativity and all my challenges.
But it seems as though since that time, over the years, God has moved me to verses 4-6: “Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water. They will climb from height to height, and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.”
Over the years I’ve slowly found coping mechanisms to manage my depression in healthier ways, and the baseline level of my mood is so, so much better than it used to be.
I still have my major rough patches–my depression will never go away, I’ll deal with it for the rest of my life–but overall, I would call myself a happy person, and I’m grateful for it every single day.
So now God is calling me out, out to the world, out to people, out to life and risk and adventure.
It’s time to be on the pilgrims’ way, discovering and scouting pools of water in the desert to sustain others, leading the climb from height to height.
What made me realize this was this exchange between Peter and Jesus in our gospel today.
A number of the disciples have found Jesus’ teaching too difficult and have given up and gone home.
“So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go?’”
Peter is asking with his back against the wall.
He’s saying, “We’ve got nowhere to go but up, and Jesus, you’re the one who’s going to take us there.”
Jesus is always asking us this: “Do you want what I have to offer, knowing that you may pay a price, that it will be difficult and demanding?”
What I realized as I thought about Jesus in this story is that throughout these years of my climbing out of and sliding back into the black pit, Jesus has been both my sanctuary and my desert, both my comfort and my driving pain and struggle and call.
He was the one who called me into the haven of his presence as manifested through the church, and he is the one sending me back out now.
He is the one who dragged me into the darkness in my heart and showed me that it has a light of its own.
And the reason I bring all this up, the reason I have invited you into such personal territory in my life and in my heart, is because I really think this journey that I have experienced with Psalm 84 is the journey that we should be living together as a church.
We as the church need to live as Jesus lived, and that means living as a haven and a goad, a comforter and a challenger.
We need to call in and send out, to be called in and to be sent out.
We need to welcome and nurture and cherish, and shove out the door into the wild pilgrim’s way of serving the world.
So think about the times in your life when the church has been a sanctuary for you, a place to escape the noise and chaos of the world or bring before God the grinding pain in your own heart.
And think about the times in your life when you were brimming with energy to get out there and do exactly what Jesus has asked of us, to serve the poor and bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim justice and truth to the powers and principalities.
Our life in the church should be an ever turning cycle of those phases, seasons of needing shelter and seasons of being shelter to others, and it my prayer that our church community as a whole can live that holy paradox.
I debated and re-debated, considered and reconsidered whether to give this sermon.
“Depression and suicide are way too heavy for Sunday morning,” I said to myself. “As if the service isn’t enough already the Whitney Rice Show, why don’t you preach an entire sermon about yourself?”
But then another voice within me said, “If you’re strong enough to live through it, then you’re strong enough to talk about it, and if it helps even one person, it’s worth it.”
So here I am, and that’s my truth.
If it was too personal and too dark, I’m sorry, but I hope you know now that I’m not afraid of your darkness and I will do anything I can to help you bear it.
I’ve shown you my pain, I hope you’ll show me yours.
And I’ve shown you my hope, and I hope you’ll show me yours, so together we can show the world our hope.
Today at communion we’ll sing “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place,” which is the hymn of Psalm 84.
I had it at my ordination to celebrate how far God had brought me, truly from the brink of death, to what was the happiest day of my life, the day I began to live out the dream of serving God and God’s people as a priest in Holy Church.
Wherever you are in your heart, needing to be welcomed in and sheltered, or ready to be sent out to serve, I give thanks that we are here, now, to sing our truth together.
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