Psalm 102:1-17 – Depressed

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Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations.
You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
for it is time to favor it;
the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold its stones dear,
and have pity on its dust.
The nations will fear the name of the Lord,
and all the kings of the earth your glory.
For the Lord will build up Zion;
he will appear in his glory.
He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
and will not despise their prayer. (NRSV)

Author and teacher Marianne Williamson told the story (most likely apocryphal) concerning a study of a group of chimpanzees.  Supposedly, researchers observed primate behavior which correlates to human depression, such as eating at odd times, spending lots of time alone, and staying on the outskirts of the group. This behavior was observed in about 10% of the chimps, which happens to be near to the percentage of Americans who show symptoms of depression.  The scientists removed the depressed chimps for six months, to see how this would affect the behavior of the other 90%.  You might think that in the absence of the depressed individuals, the remaining majority would produce another 10% of depressed chimps. Instead, when scientists returned six months later, all the non-depressed chimps were dead. The interpretation and conclusion of the study is that the depressed chimps had functioned as a kind of early warning system, continually looking out for predators, tropical storms, and other threats to the group. Without that system in place, the group was doomed.

Whether the study can be substantiated, or is a fabrication, for those who attend to the inner person and know there is much more to us than physical pathology, this account of chimpanzees resonates deeply. Rather than being merely a problem to be fixed, depression can serve as an asset to society, providing a critical mass of individuals uniquely suited to guarding against danger. That means there is an upside to depressed persons – they serve an important role.

Reading today’s psalm, especially if you read it aloud, you can feel the expression of deep lament borne from a person going through a major depression. Although there are persons in the church and society who believe depression is a sin, we get no such judgment from Holy Scripture. Depression just is.

hope in the darkness

Consider the following biblical characters: When the prophet Elijah became depressed, it served as a sign and warning that there was something horribly awry in ancient Israel.  Jezebel was the wicked queen, pulling the strings in a nation connected in a web of evil which permeated the land. When Moses became despondent time and again, it pointed to the faithless network of apostasy that kept rearing its golden calf in the life of the Israelite people.

And when we, as contemporary persons, become depressed it can and should serve as a billboard to others that something is terribly askew among us, and not just within the individual.

Please know that I fully believe depression ought to be addressed and treated so that the depressed person can come around again to a sense of happiness and hopefulness. Yet, there are also emotionally “healthy” people who try to push pills, hurry along therapy, and pronounce exhortations to the emotionally ill people around them. It’s almost as if depressed people make others uncomfortable and uneasy.

If depression points to societal ills, not just personal sickness, then it makes sense that non-depressed people want depressed people to get healthy now, because then they don’t have to take a good hard look at the systemic problems of our society and culture.  When we rush to make someone feel better, typically the person we really want to help is ourselves.

Depression and emotional struggles must be deeply felt, examined, and carefully dealt with. Thus, enter the psalmist. The sheer volume of laments in the biblical Psalter ought to clue us in that this is important work. Sadness and grief can get trapped in us like monkeys in a cage. Reciting psalms of lament can help express what is within us and serve as the key which unlocks us to freedom. Dealing with depression is a process. It takes time and therapy, perseverance and patience, to heal.  Learning new ways to accept, cope, and transcend are difficult – they take time. Cheap hope is a switch which can be easily flipped; genuine hope is a medieval gate that needs effort to open.

While the depressed among us learn to hope again, the majority who are depression-free ought to pay attention. We need also to examine ourselves, our families, our organizations, our workplaces, and our churches to determine what is awry and create new systems and new ways of living together on planet earth.  After all, who wants to make a monkey of themselves?

Holy God, please observe all who live with depression and hold them in your good strong hands. Send them your love through therapists, pastors, friends, and family. Grant them assurance of your love in their dark hours. In your mercy, hear my prayer concerning the depressed persons in my life. I feel powerless and inadequate to help. I am frustrated because depression can be so unpredictable. Help me find the resilience and resources I need to be with them during their time of pain. And, teach me what I need to learn in this darkness. Through Jesus Christ, my Savior, I pray. Amen.

Discovering Yourself in the Bible

Elijah

The Holy Scriptures are timeless.  All kinds of people throughout the ages have been drawn to discover it.  One of the reasons we are interested in the Bible and become tethered to its contents is that we often resonate deeply with many of its characters.

A good and healthy spiritual exercise is to connect and project yourself into the pages of God’s Word.  To relate, express, and find a common human condition with ancient believers is a means of strengthening your faith, uncovering your own spiritual journey, and paying attention to the soundings of your soul.

Let me demonstrate what I’m talking about through speaking of my own life and the life of a famous biblical character….

I feel like Elijah.  Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who acted with unusual faith, single-handedly took on the ungodly Queen Jezebel, sparked a national revival, fell into a dark depression, allowed God to extend him pastoral care and comfort, learned to not journey alone in his faith through mentoring another great prophet of Israel, Elisha, and was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.

As far as prophets go, we have a great deal of information on Elijah in the biblical accounts.  Our introduction to him goes as follows: “Elijah was a prophet from Tishbe in Gilead.  One day he went to King Ahab and said, ‘I’m a servant of the living LORD, the God of Israel.  And I swear in his name that it won’t rain until I say so.  There won’t even be any dew on the ground.” (1 Kings 17:1). And it happened just as Elijah said it would.

I’m a believer in making simple observations of the Bible.  What stands-out to me foremost is Elijah’s solitary behavior.  He initiated and acted alone.  Elijah saw the systemic evil of Ahab and Jezebel’s reign in Israel and he boldly spoke truth to power.  Whether Elijah had thought through the consequences of his words or not, we don’t know.  But we are aware that this was understandably not received well, at all.

If Elijah was alone before, now he is driven to a life of solitude with only ravens for company (1 Kings 17:5-6).  I resonate deeply with Elijah on this.  I tend to think in organization and order.  When I see systems in place which oppress, hurt, and damage people instead of helping them to succeed, thrive, and flourish, it disturbs me.  Elijah was a solitary kind of guy, that is, until a system of injustice was in power.  Then, he used his speech to agitate for what is right.

In many jobs I have had throughout my life, I’ve had a kind of “Elijah” experience.  I see systemic issues which keep marginal people on the outside. Meanwhile, those on the inside enjoy the perks of power.  Sometimes I’ve been fired for calling-out corporate owners and vice-presidents, church elders, and denominational leaders for their exclusive policies and procedures which only benefit themselves.

This might sound commendable, except for the fact that I almost always acted alone on my own initiative without building a coalition of other concerned people.  Instead, I tended to think that I was the only one who cared and stepped forward, making myself a target that people couldn’t miss.  I wonder if Elijah, like me, was thoughtful and introverted with a close relationship with his God, yet with a fear of human relationships.

The event in Elijah’s life which defined him as a great prophet was the showdown with the four-hundred fifty prophets of Baal, of whom the Israelites had religiously prostituted themselves.  You don’t get any more John Wayne than one person versus four-hundred fifty.  In one of the best sarcastic statements you’ll find anywhere, Elijah said to the prophets of Baal who spent the entire morning trying to get their god to respond: “Pray louder! Maybe Baal is daydreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere.  Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up.” (1 Kings 18:27, CEV)

Elijah on Mt Carmel

Elijah statue on Mount Carmel

Sometimes, for me, it seems easier to confront four-hundred fifty people than have an intimate encounter with one person.  I often find it more effortless to preach to thousands of people (of which I’ve done many times) than to connect meaningfully with one of them.  To me, Elijah sometimes seems like a contradiction, having within himself a great capacity for faith along with an equally large expanse of fear.

This bundle of contradiction is seen in the aftermath of the national revival Elijah helped to spark.  Through a miraculous display of the living God responding to Elijah’s sacrifice, the prophets of Baal were done away with (literally) and the worship of Israel’s God was immediately returned.  Queen Jezebel, the chief architect of establishing Baal worship in Israel, was not having this revival of Israelite religion.  A deeply symbolic heavy rain came with it, ending three years of drought, which only made Jezebel angry and on a mission.

Jezebel got a message straightaway to Elijah: “You killed my prophets.  Now I’m going to kill you!  I pray that the gods will punish me even more severely if I don’t do it by this time tomorrow.” (1 Kings 19:2).  The prophet who took on an entire establishment and saw the miraculous done right in front of his eyes had this response to the wicked queen: he was afraid, ran away, and said to God, “I’ve had enough.  Just let me die!  I’m no better off than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:3-4)

Elijah was, in contemporary terms, burned-out and exhausted – and he became terribly depressed.  It’s as if Elijah had identified himself with taking down the establishment for so long that when it happened, he was lost.  Who was he now?  The scaffolding of prophetic witness was gone, and Elijah was left face-to-face with his naked self.

I feel Elijah’s pain.  I know the sense of laboring to do good and being spiritually and emotionally spent to the point of just wanting to die and be done with all the brokenness of this old fallen world.  I have felt the awkwardness of identifying with a role, and when that role is gone there is only my true self and the God I serve.

But God, the ultimate spiritual caregiver, sent his angel to help Elijah in his broken state.  He fed him, let him sleep, and sent him on a sacred journey to growth as a transformed person.  Rather than exhort Elijah in his penchant for solitary action, God simply asked him a question: “Why are you here?”  After listening to Elijah express his narrow thinking on how the world works, God simply asked him again: “Elijah, why are you here?” (1 Kings 19:9-14)

That simple question lingered with Elijah and changed him.  From that point forward, Elijah seems to move with a quiet confidence that doesn’t come from a place of acting alone.  He doesn’t carry the world on his shoulders.  He isn’t quick to identify himself as a prophet.  His zeal for God remains yet is focused into including others.  Elijah goes from his sacred encounter with God and finds Elisha, who, by all appearances, is just a plain non-descript Israelite farmer.  No longer does Elijah walk alone.  His protégé, Elisha, is with him until the end of his life here on this earth.  And when Elijah is gone, Elisha inherits a double-portion of his mentor’s spirit and goes on to be a powerful prophet in his own right.

One of the best decisions I ever made in my life was, after going through a debilitating depression, I made it my aim and goal to mentor others in the faith.  I never went for a solo pastorate, always looked to build into the lives of younger ministers and found the value of traveling with companions in my pilgrimage of faith.

Unlike Elijah, I’m still on this earth and not likely to be swept up in a chariot of fire anytime soon.  I’m still figuring out who Tim Ehrhardt really is underneath the academic degrees, ministry successes and failures, and all the roles and responsibilities in my life.  There’s both faith and fear wrapped up in it all.  I still struggle with the old lies that my identity is in what I have, what I do, and in the attention and accolades of others.  I continue to wrestle with the compulsion to reform church and society and find it difficult to savor what is already present.

I see Elijah as a prophet with a deep faith that influenced everything he said and did. Yet, at the same time, he was a flawed man who was often characterized and paralyzed by fear and maybe acted from a place of self-righteousness more than he realized. What is clear to me, however, is that Elijah saw himself transformed as he allowed his God to care for him in ways that changed his life forever.  And that is the kind of spirit I’d like to inherit from my spiritual ancestor.

A Different Take on Depression

depressed person 2

Author and teacher Marianne Williamson tells the story (most likely apocryphal) concerning a particular study of a group of chimpanzees.  Supposedly, researchers observed primate behavior which correlates to human depression, such as eating at odd times, spending lots of time alone, and staying on the outskirts of the group. This behavior was observed in about 10% of the chimps, which happens to be near to the percentage of Americans who show symptoms of depression.  The scientists removed the depressed chimps for six months, to see how this would affect the behavior of the other 90%.   You might think that in the absence of the depressed individuals, the remaining majority would produce another 10% of depressed chimps. But that’s not what actually happened.  Instead, when scientists returned six months later, all of the non-depressed chimps were dead.

The interpretation and conclusion of the study is that the depressed chimps had functioned as a kind of early warning system, continually looking out for predators, tropical storms, and other threats to the group. Without that system in place, the group was doomed.

Whether the study can be substantiated, or is a fabrication, for those who attend to the inner person and know that there is much more to us than physical pathology, this account of chimpanzees resonates deeply.  Rather than being only a problem to be fixed, depression can serve as a valuable asset to society, providing a critical mass of individuals uniquely suited to guarding against danger.  The reality is that there is an upside to depressed persons – they serve an important role when in such a state.

When the biblical character Elijah became depressed, it served as a sign and warning that there was something horribly awry in ancient Israel.  Jezebel was the wicked queen, pulling the strings in a nation connected in a web of evil which permeated the land.  When Moses became despondent time and again, it pointed to the faithless network of apostasy that kept rearing its golden calf in the life of the Israelite people.  And when we, as contemporary persons, become depressed it can and should serve as a billboard to others that something is terribly wrong among us, and not just within the individual.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying.  I am not proclaiming that depression ought not to be addressed and alleviated so that the depressed person can come around again to a sense of happiness and hopefulness.  What I am saying is that there are emotionally “healthy” people who try to push pills, hurry along therapy, and pronounce exhortations to the emotionally ill people around them.  It’s almost as if depressed people make others uncomfortable and uneasy.  If depression points to societal ills, not just personal sickness, then it makes sense that non-depressed people want depressed people to get healthy now, because then they don’t have to take a good hard look at the systemic problems of our society and culture.  When we rush to make someone feel better, typically the person we really want to help is ourselves.

Depression and emotional struggles must be deeply felt, examined, and carefully dealt with.  Dealing with it is a process just as much as it takes time and therapy, perseverance and patience, to heal from a brain surgery.  Learning new ways to accept, cope, and transcend doesn’t happen overnight.

depressed person

Meanwhile, while the depressed among us learn to heal and hope again, the majority of us who are not depressed ought not to ignore our role.  We need to also examine ourselves, our families, our organizations, our workplaces, and our churches to determine what is askew and create new systems and new ways of living together on planet earth.  After all, we wouldn’t want to make monkeys of ourselves.

Psalm 32


             “Because I kept silent, my bones wasted away; I groaned all day long.”  There is perhaps no better description of depression than this statement by David in the midst of his emotional pain.  David had every reason to feel deeply about the circumstances of his life.  He had been both victim and perpetrator in all kinds of very troubling situations.  But, as a leader, he kept the stiff-upper-lip of stubbornly holding everything inside.  In fact, the word “depression” literally means to depress the emotions and keep them tightly held within and not allowing them to see the light of day.
             There was a time in my past in which I was so good at stuffing my feelings that one night when our neighbor had a blow-out of a party at 2 in the morning, I actually felt no anger.  Just so you know:  that’s not healthy.  I had an anger problem.  Not the kind where you explode, but just the opposite – the kind where you stuff every negative feeling in the book.
          Recovery for me meant first recognizing that I had a lot to be angry about.  Next, I began to let myself feel the past situations of my life, and I need to tell you that what was inside me wasn’t at all pretty.  Like a wound that needs peroxide, dealing with depression hurt like hell.  But I couldn’t heal without it.  I couldn’t go around it, or avoid it; I had to go through it.  Finally, I learned to not only identify my feelings, but to take charge of them.  I discovered I could choose to say how I feel without apology, and I could say it all in a way that helped others, as well as myself.  Like David of old, I had to get what was inside on the outside.
Gracious God, your stamp of approval is on the penitent – those who are brutally honest with the inner self and receive your mercy.  I will not keep silent.  I will declare to you the current state of my life and not run away from the ugliness within.  Through the gracious Name of Jesus I pray with thanksgiving.  Amen.