Depression is hell.

For some, it looks like gathering clouds. For others, a black hole. For some, it feels like dread or fear or hopelessness. For others, it feels more like guilt — the kind that won’t go away. It may feel like shame, or like anxiety that never eases up. It can leave one unable to function, and another unable to sleep. Some ease the pain by eating; others by not eating. In some people, it masks itself as physical pain. Other people mask it with anger; many medicate with substances that seem to help at first, but end up enslaving in a deeper darkness. It saps some or all their energy; it makes others nervously busy. Some become manic; others become numb.

Depression is hell.

And there are as many faces of it as there are people who live with it. Statistics say one in ten adults will deal with it in some form at least once in their lives. They tell us more women than men suffer from it, but that may be more a difference in how we talk about it. We know this much for sure: A depressed person cannot talk himself out of it or will it away, nor can the people around him. And the pain of it can affect us spiritually, causing us to question God and even our own existence.

As spiritual people, how do we cope when the clouds gather? What stories help us understand how God works when we are in darkness?

The obvious choice would be Job, I guess, but I’d like to draw some thoughts from an unlikely character in the Bible — Moses, a great man whose obedience changed the world. Consider his story. Moses spent literally decades, sitting in his own cloud of unknowing, waiting for God to show up. Then, when God did show up, Moses could not have responded more unenthusiastically if he’d tried. He responded to God in fear. He was a man who tended to leave things half-done (remember the argument with his wife?). He caused his family no end in grief. His meetings with the Pharaoh created suffering for a cityful of people. If ever there was a man with a right to feel depressed, Moses would be it.

Eventually, he had it out with God (I love him for this). He explodes in frustration. “God, why have you mistreated your people like this? Why did you send me? You have not even begun to rescue them. Where are you, God? Have you forsaken us forever? Where are you? Where are you?” (Exodus 5:22-23)

When the low-hanging emotional clouds hover like a weight of fog over your life, it is hard to hear the voice of God over our pain. “Why are my finances in such trouble? Why is my job so miserable? Why is my home life so unappealing? Why is my marriage loveless? Why do my children suffer with illness or disability or emotional pain? Why, God, have you mistreated your people like this?” For some of us, the questions far outweigh the answers and it leaves us depressed, broken, fearful … feeling guilty for the way we feel about it.

One of the angriest times I’ve had in my life came after my mother died. I hurt. The grief was heavy; the pain worse than what I’d known before. I remember a pastor telling me I needed to keep praying. I responded by telling him I had no more prayers. I was so angry. I didn’t understand the suffering she went through or the grief with which we were left. Folks around us meant well (they always do), but no amount of words, food, flowers or care seemed to penetrate the darkness.

Then I got a card from a friend that seemed to touch at the point of my deepest need. In the card, she quoted a French poet named Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”

That thought seemed more relevant than any well-intentioned encouragement others offered. It went right to the heart. I couldn’t talk myself out of how I felt. There were no answers to make it all make sense and it helped greatly to be told I didn’t have to have answers. It helped to know I didn’t have to depend on cheap clichés to soothe deep pain. Making peace with the questions made more sense. It was certainly more do-able.

I suspect that God understands that. Maybe that’s why he answered Moses the way he did when Moses got to the end of his rope. God didn’t get mad at him or fire him. He didn’t make him feel guilty for being frustrated. He didn’t punish him for the emotional outburst. In fact, I can almost hear him saying, “Finally … now we’re getting somewhere.” In the midst of Moses’ honesty, God showed up compassionately and met him at the very point of his questioning. God acknowledged his frustration and raised him above it not with cheap clichés that would ease the immediate pain but with the eternal truth of God’s power and promises.

Hear this: The best thing God has to offer us is not answers to our questions, but the truth of Himself. God said to Moses, “I know it doesn’t look great for you right now and while that’s not something I will change, I am One you can trust as you walk through it. You can count on me to do what I’ve promised.”

God comforts Moses by showing him who He is. In other words, God says, “I have not changed. Even though your moods may swing and the clouds hang low and your perspective may shift and your faith may waiver and your circumstances may alter, I AM. I am the same yesterday, today and forever. What I have promised, I will deliver. I am still the same powerful and loving God who cares for you and wants to bring you into your destiny. I Am Who I Say I Am.”

And while that may not do one thing today to ease your depression, maybe it will provide for you a solid truth to lean on while you walk through your valley. God’s character is eternal, his promises are safe, his nature is to love and his plans for us are good.

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God is enough (or, why sovereignty matters).

Every time we say the words “Jesus Christ,” we are proclaiming a King who has a Kingdom. The Bible refers to it alternately as the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. Christ’s Kingdom is the rule and reign of a holy God, an “anointed one.” He is not just King of my heart or even King of the world. He is King of the universe. There is a cosmic reality far greater than us over which Christ rules.

His rule is complete.

The Kingdom of Heaven has an army. The Hebrew term usually translated as “hosts” in the Bible (as in, “Lord of Hosts”) more accurately means “army.” Ours is a warrior King who fights for us in the supernatural realm.

The one who is in charge of our army, who is fighting for our territory, who has dominion over our Kingdom, is a God of love, justice, mercy and peace. He can be trusted even in the battle because God is on the side of people. God loves people.

The King who is for us is with us.

He is a sovereign King. What does it mean when we say God is sovereign? We are saying, basically, that God is God. King of Kings! Lord of Lords! God Almighty. He is enough.

Here’s what the fact of God’s sovereignty means for you and me:

  • God has the power to do what he wants, where he wants, when he wants.
  • God has given himself one limit: he has chosen to let us come to him freely. Our Father has chosen to make our relationship with him a free choice. Free will is a mark of God’s sovereignty, not God’s limits.
  • God is not a bully. His decisions are compelled by love, not power (which means we are saved by love, not power). At the cross, we (humans) experienced the full extent of God’s love. Satan experienced the full extent of God’s power.
  • God does not control us; he empowers us. What he asks of us, he empowers us to do. That’s the point of the Holy Spirit. This is precisely why we seek the filling of the Holy Spirit.
  • God gives us the right to make decisions and our decisions matter. In fact, they have eternal consequences.

This is God’s sovereignty at work: God is compelled by love to exercise his power. Because he loves us, he uses his power to overcome every obstacle that threatens to keep his children from the Kingdom. He uses his power to fight for us and in the end, we are assured that this love — the love of a merciful, just God — wins.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, our Father is enough. All by himself, he is enough.

Hallelujah.

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ELCA: foreshadowing a UMC future?

In the United Methodist Church these days, it is all about “the plans.” Three have been recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward. I note them here for reference, with reflections beneath about another denomination’s experience with their version of the One Church Plan:

The Traditionalist Plan: This plan maintains language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, and provides a gracious (but as-yet undefined) exit for those who cannot in good conscience abide by that language. Those who support this plan are often accused of being schismatic for their unwillingness to bend on what they would call core theological convictions — convictions written into the Book of Discipline and which traditionalists and progressives alike committed to at their ordination.

The One Church Plan: This plan removes language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, leaving it to churches to determine what their guidelines will be on issues like membership, marriage of same-sex couples, or ordination of LGBTQ persons. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan, presumably because it allows churches, members and pastors to choose their theology. The lack of a gracious exit reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to have deeply held convictions about the Bible, holiness, marriage and the nature of discipleship. It requires those convictions to submit to the cause of institutional preservation.

The Connectional Conference Plan: This plan corrals United Methodists into three main “camps” — traditionalist, centrist and progressive. These three camps would share affiliated services while being otherwise autonomous though governed by one Council of Bishops. There is no gracious exist attached to this plan, though it also requires a fundamental shift in understanding about what it means to hold core theological convictions. What the One Church Plan requires of laypersons and clergy, the Connectional Conference Plan requires of bishops, requiring them to set aside personal conviction for the sake of institutional preservation.

The One Church and Connectional Conference Plans — by their lack of exit ramp and the assumption that preservation trumps personal conviction — reveal the depth of our divide in the United Methodist Church, a divide that ought to be respected because it refuses to be minimized. Other denominations have proven the power of this kind of theological divide.

A colleague and friend, Reverend Dave Keener, witnessed this firsthand during the similar crisis in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Reflecting on the eventual division in the ELCA and its similarities to the current crisis in the UMC, Reverend Keener notes that something similar to the One Church Plan (OCP) was adopted by the ELCA in 2009. “The term they used was ‘bound conscience,’” he writes. “The assembly was assured that the theological and biblical positions of traditionalists and progressives alike would be respected. This did not happen.”

Soon after the vote it became clear to the traditionalists that there was in reality only one acceptable position and it wasn’t theirs. Since the the decisions of 2009 the ELCA has intentionally become more progressive and the traditionalists who remain in that denomination have been marginalized (most exited at the height of the crisis, forming the North American Lutheran Church, or NALC).

It may be helpful to take note of what happened within the ELCA in the aftermath of their adoption of a plan similar to the OCP. These reflections come from my Lutheran colleague:

  • Massive loss in membership. In the seven years after the decision to go against the historic teaching of the church the ELCA lost over one million members. They continue to decline but have not released numbers since 2016.
  • Massive loss of income. In the first few years after the vote the ELCA was forced to lay off hundreds of workers and experienced significant decreases in all areas of funding. Their current income for denominational expenses is less than it was in 1987, the year it was organized.
  • Global impact. Many churches in other parts of the world broke off formal ties with the ELCA — especially in Africa and the East.
  • Loss of confessional identity and loyalty.  It was no longer possible for local pastors to recommend that members who were relocating find an ELCA congregation since there was no longer unity in biblical teaching.
  • Theological education. Since the vote the ELCA has slowly purged itself of orthodox seminary professors. They have had to merge two of their seminaries for financial reasons and have removed one seminary president at the urging of progressive advocacy groups.
  • Diversity. One of the battle cries for the ELCA in making their decision was diversity, inclusion and welcoming. Ironically, according to a Pew research study last year the ELCA is now the second least diverse and multicultural denomination in the USA (96% white). The least diverse is the National Baptist Convention which is 99% African American.
  • Theological drift because of lack of accountability. Since the 2009 decision the denomination has continued to drift. With it’s decision the ELCA lost its ability to speak credibly to any issue. In saying that it doesn’t really matter what the Bible clearly states they reduce it to one resource among many and not God’s revelation to His people. Everything becomes a matter of opinion and soon the scripture has no authority for life. Congregations preaching various forms of universalism are becoming more and more common.
  • Generational impact. This article explains how quickly theology can drift in just one generation, once the theological core of a tribe has been removed.
  • Evangelism and discipleship. See point #1 for stats on loss of membership and attendance. As my friend notes, “Once biblical authority and historical teachings are removed, universalism and cheap grace are not far behind” … and neither breeds evangelistic urgency.

We owe it to ourselves and the thirteen million who call themselves United Methodist to learn from our brothers and sisters in other tribes who have may have tried too hard to hold together what isn’t theologically compatible. May God give us both grace and humility to go where he leads and to refuse the spirit of fear.

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Encouragement for a spiritually dry Monday: You are not abandoned.

I’ve hovered in the doorway of doubt more times than I can count.

As a pastor, as a Christian, as a human, I’ve experienced horrifying moments of unexpected doubt. It happens while I’m driving down the road or standing in line at Kroger or sometimes even as I’m standing up to preach. I hear an unwelcome voice, whispering, “What if this isn’t real? What if I’m just a keeper of the myth?” I appeal silently to God but struggle to find him in the cloud.

As Steve Harper says, “Spiritual dryness is a condition that makes prayer feel as if we are talking in the dark.”

Even the most faithful of us can find ourselves swimming in doubt — impatient with God, spiritually dry. Where there used to be rivers of living water, now there is dust. Faith that once was flowing has now ebbed. In fact, the tide has gone out so far it is beyond the horizon.

How discouraging. Especially for a pastor.

It helps me to know that it happens to others whose work I respect. It happened to Mother Teresa. It happened to Thomas and to Peter, and probably most if not all the others (even if their stories — mercifully — weren’t as widely publicized. Imagine having your worst spiritual moment published in the most popular book of all time).

It happened to John Wesley, who once wrote something to this effect to his brother: “I don’t know if I believe in God, and I don’t know if I ever have.” While that sounds like spiritual disaster coming from the pen of a spiritual master, it was very likely the opposite — not a moment of spiritual failure but of deep, longing honesty.

But maybe you’re the rare exception. You’ve never had a clear moment, much less a long season, of spiritual dryness. You’ve never once felt as if your faith was on life-support. If so, read this so you’ll have some inkling of how the rest of us feel; then, forward this to the person you’re thinking about as you read. They need to know they aren’t alone and your witness won’t be much of a comfort to them.

If you’re the rest of us — if your spiritual life sometimes feels like week-old bread or a stagnant pond, if your personal circumstances seem toxic and you’re in need of some signs of hope and life — then my prayer is that you’ll find encouragement not in a three-point “get fixed quick” blog but in the thought that maybe you’re not alone. And that maybe God even uses seasons of dryness to help us exercise our obedience muscles. Because sometimes we do this out of obedience rather than feeling. Sometimes we do this because the long story is that we’re not who we used to be, even if we’re not who we want to be right now.

There are nine clear stories in the Bible of people being raised from the dead and that doesn’t include what sounds like thousands who came back to life after Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection of Christ is the culmination of a thread in God’s story that ought to teach us something fundamental about his nature. He specializes in bringing hope into hopeless situations.

The story of the prophet Elijah is a strong case in point. He was among those Old Testament prophets who predicted famine in the land during days of poor leadership. In the midst of the famine, Elijah is provided for in miraculous ways as he camps out beside a stream. Ravens bring bread and meat twice a day. He has the provision of this stream. He is happy to stay here in this place and feed on this supernatural provision while he waits out the famine.

Sometimes faith comes like that. We get the parking space by the door and the check in the mail and the job we weren’t qualified for and the peace that passes understanding. And we’ve done nothing to deserve it. We’re not even consciously connected, or don’t feel as if we are.

Sometimes faith comes that way and in those seasons we have nothing to do but be humbly grateful.

Then sometimes, the brook dries up. The blessings stop coming. Sometimes the brook dries up because of our own disconnection, but sometimes it dries up because someone (not God) built a dam upstream. And in those times, it takes great faith to cling to Jesus while others wreak havoc in our lives.

In Elijah’s story, it is the dried-up brook that moves him into the flow of the Spirit. The brook dries up and Elijah — if he’s going to survive — must move on. It seems an unmercifully abrupt end to a good thing but it is in the very “moving on” that this prophet meets with his higher calling. In the process he befriends a widow who provides food while setting him in the path of God’s purposes. Here is where Elijah’s story puts him into the flow of God’s resurrection power.

Here’s the thing: sometimes dried-up brooks are moments to be weathered or voices to be ignored. But sometimes, God dries up the brook so we’ll be motivated to move on from the brook to the river. Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said (John 12:24): “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

What creates a resurrection atmosphere? What moves God to bring dead things back to life? And how can we tap into that understanding so we can bring to life what’s dead in us?

Maybe it happens when we allow ourselves to see beyond the brook to what God is doing elsewhere. Sometimes the brooks dry up and the seeds die so we’ll be motivated to move on.

Is it possible that your spiritual dryness is connected to an unwillingness to let God do a new thing?

This song was written as a response to a message given several years ago at the New Room Conference. I am so very blessed by this song, and share it here for those who need a fresh word of encouragement. Even when you don’t feel it, he is here. You are not abandoned was written by Joel Mooneyhan. Find more about him here.

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