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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Waiting in the Valley of Perseverance

Three days ago, I’d never heard of a rover called Opportunity or the Valley of Perseverance. I first heard about it from the Holy Spirit himself. I’m in one of those seasons right now. It isn’t darkness, exactly, but it is dimmer than usual. There is a subtle resistance in my spirit, a sense that I’m having to work just to keep moving, having to press through when I’d rather lay low. We all have those times when it feels more like walking through mud than walking on water, and I’m in one of those. I wouldn’t classify it as depression or doubt or fear or even anxiety. Nor is this a time when God seems silent. To the contrary, he seems remarkably close. My times in his presence are rich. I can hear his voice. That makes me suspect there is more to this season than a bad mood.

But what to call it, then? When I asked the Lord about it — “Lord, am I sliding backward? Am I spiraling down into an old familiar darkness?” — here’s what I heard: “This is the Valley of Perseverance.” I’d never heard of such a valley. I assumed it was in the Bible somewhere, but I couldn’t recall where so I looked it up.

It isn’t in there.

The Valley of Perseverance is a place on Mars, and I’m just finding out about it though it happens to be in the news right now. Earlier this year the rover named Opportunity got stuck there. Somewhere in mid-June, a dust storm kicked up, a big one that has since grown to epic proportions. Because Opportunity is powered by solar energy, the severe dust is keeping the rover’s solar panels from being able to absorb light. So now, two months into this storm, there sits Opportunity surrounded by dust and grounded, unable to charge its batteries for the lack of light.

Researchers monitoring the situation are hopeful for two things to happen. Eventually, the dust storm will settle, they assume, though that won’t be the end of Opportunity’s challenges. When the dust settles, it will inevitably settle on the rover’s solar panels, solving nothing. The second hope after the dust settles is that a wind will blow through and clear the panels of dust. This is a quote from a NASA report on the situation (but doesn’t it sound like something out of Isaiah?): “The sun breaks through the haze over the Valley of Perseverance, and soon the light there should be enough to allow Opportunity to charge its batteries.”

But for now, the only option open is to wait it out. 

I’m stunned by this revelation, taken by it. That God would draw from this story to speak to my inner angst is powerful. It reminds me that he is not just my friend, or even the God whose got the whole world in his hands. He is the God of the universe, and certainly big enough to hold me in the valleys.

In this word, he has shown me that not all down days (or weeks, or seasons) are generic. Some of them are specific and require a specific response. This one I’m in? This is the “dust” of a flurry of projects and responsibilities running concurrently. Most of them are not storms of my own making. They are moments and circumstances and situations with expiration dates that require my patient endurance as they play out. Weighty though they are, most are best conquered with waiting. Doing nothing, even.  Sometimes circumstances beyond our control will necessitate our sitting in the Valley of Perseverance for a season. Nothing to do but wait it out.

But the waiting proves us. And shapes us.

In Paul’s encouragement to first-century Christians dealing with pressures of faith, he writes that “suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2b-4). Perseverance in Paul’s use of it is about handling pressure with grace. It is a solid biblical word that gives one the sense of a floor beneath the feet in confusing times. It is a prescription for allowing tough seasons to build character.

So I hear you, Holy Spirit: Hang in there. Wait. Don’t force things. This storm will pass. The dust will settle. The wind will blow. The light will shine. The batteries will recharge.  As with Opportunity, who sits on a far planet also under Your gaze, the call is to persevere, and to use this waiting to build character.

It is a good word, and a gift. I hear it. Give me courage and wisdom enough to let it form me.

Lord, give us wisdom and patience to wait out the storms, the dust, and the confusion. Give us grace to endure seasons in the Valley of Perseverance, so we can again draw strength from your light and move beyond this place.

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Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

Yet another acquaintance lost his life to depression over the holidays. Such loss leaves everyone devastated on multiple levels. When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw.

Some years ago, another friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

This is how I answered that question. Maybe it will help someone who is plagued with the same or similar questions:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways, much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did, and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s profound. A great insight and spot-on. I’m glad to hear that you’re dealing with the inevitable guilt in such healthy ways.

And the guilt is inevitable. It is such a sick, sad after-effect of suicide (every suicide, I’m guessing). I sure wish those who end their lives could know just what a burden they leave the living to carry. What a sadness, for all involved. God, your sister, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I don’t have a great answer to your question but I’ve been thinking about it for the last 24 hours and praying about what is truth, since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

The first thing I know about the enemy is this: He is not creative. That is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls, who tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. There is no genius about him. Just evil, hatred and lies.

The second thing I know about the enemy is that he is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again, predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; and he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, to wreak havoc.

I also notice that the enemy of our soul works within systems (things like racism, socialism, atheism, etc.; even some forms of religion), but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. I don’t think of him as purposefully systematic (although he may stumble into systems and exploit their weak spots) or as having great forethought and strategy. For that reason, I see him as acting more individually and randomly. In the absence of a system, he uses whatever presents itself as most convenient.

What we know is this: Because he is lazy, he was clearly capitalizing on your sister’s depression by speaking lies into her spirit that magnified her sense of hopelessness or despair. He wore her down and eventually wore her out. In her pain, the enemy managed to separate your sister from the support systems that might otherwise have buffered her against his worst. He may have used co-dependence (hers or others’) to keep her from claiming her identity in Christ. Maybe he was able to keep her mired in memories that kept her broken and unhealthy.

Or maybe he just made her think (or used the depression to make her think) there was no hope.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it?

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we can’t begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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Pigs don’t fly.

A passenger on a recent U.S. Airways flight boarded a plane carrying what other passengers are saying resembled a duffel bag thrown over her shoulder. Her assigned seat was next to Jonathan Skolnik who realized, as she got closer, that this was no duffel bag at all. “We could smell it. It was a pig on a leash. She tethered it to the arm rest next to me and started to deal with her stuff, but the pig was walking back and forth … I was terrified, because I was thinking I’m gonna be on the plane with the pig!”

Skolnik was greatly relieved when the woman and pig were asked to deboard, not because the pig was illegal but because he became unruly. Classified as an emotional support animal, he actually became emotional himself so he and his owner were escorted off the plane.*

Which now gives us empirical proof that pigs really don’t fly.

I found this story while mediating on another one. In Mark, chapter 5, the story is told of a demon-possessed man who meets Jesus and gets exorcised. He admits to being possessed by thousands of demons, all of which Jesus casts into a nearby herd of pigs, who then (all 2,000 of them) run madly off a cliff and drown. The story of this healing miracle ripples quickly through town. Our demon-possessed guy is healed! Oh, and also … our pigs are all at the bottom of the sea!

The townspeople find Jesus and beg him to leave. They want nothing to do with this kind of power, nor do they appreciate the loss of their pigs.

Why would normal people be put off by a display of Kingdom power? From the story, you get the sense that while they didn’t much like the demons, they weren’t so put off by them that they were willing to give up their pigs. It seems that what bothers them is how Jesus chooses to solve their problem.

Let me say that again this way: What so often bothers us is how Jesus chooses to solve our problems. It is as if we get our demons and our pigs confused. What we want is for our demons to disappear but for our pigs to fly. In other words, we want the issue to go away without us having to change anything.

But as it turns out, pigs don’t fly.

Which means that if I have an addiction and want to be delivered of it, I also have to be willing to let go of whatever triggers kick my cravings into high gear. If I’m dealing with depression and want healing for it, I may have to let go of my bias against medicine or therapy. Or I may have to find room and discipline in my life for exercise. Or I may have to figure out my limits and live inside of them so I don’t continually toss myself into the darkness by ignoring good boundaries.

If childhood wounds have created adult dysfunctions, I may have to let go of unforgiveness, or anger. I may have to find healthier ways of dealing with debilitating feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy. If I want healing from the wounds, I also have to let the scars go.

It makes me think of that woman carrying a pig onto an airplane for emotional support. Maybe it works for her (I sure don’t want to debate the therapeutic benefits of emotional support animals). But where the rest of us are concerned, I wonder if we might be guilty of carrying our “pigs” around for emotional support when Jesus wants to see both the demons and pigs destroyed. When the demons go, the pigs have to go, too.

Here’s the moral of the story: Pigs really don’t fly. Don’t hang onto them hoping one day they will.

*Source: http://abcnews.go.com/US/proof-pigs-fly/story?id=27222136

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Listening (and responding) to mental Illness

Some of the people I love most deal daily with depression, or the effects of medicating it. Others deal with seasonal affective disorder, the kind of depression that gets worse as the shadows of fall getdepression1 longer. Some in our community of faith live with complicated disorders like schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. Anyone who has been there and done that knows the challenge and pain. 

In the wake of Matthew Warren’s death two years ago (Matthew is Rick Warren’s son), Rebekah Lyons penned this remarkably practical and sensitive post. Toward the end, she references Warren’s public letter about the daily war his son faced in his battle with depression (a battle he lost, ultimately succumbing to suicide).

I am reposting the heart of Rebekah’s post here for those who need a word of encouragement today as you deal with your own, or someone else’s, illness:

For those afflicted, depression enters when we’ve lost hope for the future. When we no longer imagine a life that is free. Whether it’s triggered by a chemical imbalance or a change in circumstances, facing it in isolation is the most treacherous. At precisely the time we need others, our inclination is to turn inward.

I’ve been comforted to know I’m not alone.

Anxiety and panic are my nemesis. In my struggle to break through the mental distress, I’ve found comfort and promise in the writings of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. His summation that the root cause of anxiety is a sense of unfulfilled responsibility resonates.

For me, the low surfaces when I am not contributing to someone or something. When I lose a vision for my life, purpose hides beyond my grasp. But when I recover my sense of purpose and calling — to help women navigate these hidden troubles — meaning rushes in.

Over the past three years, the promises of Jesus have been paramount in helping me walk forward. Uttering hushed prayers in subways as the doors close in, softly crying out for rescue on long desolate Central Park walks in the dead of winter. God’s presence has always been a guiding force, my source for purpose beyond myself.

For each of us, this tragedy raises important questions: How do we better care for the 26%?   What is your role in bringing healing to those who hurt? Perhaps these three postures could go a long way.

Remove the stigma
.  As people of faith, let’s talk about mental illness, giving others permission to do the same. Let’s release the stigma that keeps this a secret, holding untold millions captive. All secrets lose power when they exit the dark. The church is a place where we should be able to come as we are, with our longings for what we hope to be. Jesus always pursued the weak with open arms. When we are broken and fragile, He draws us closer to Him in ways we’ve never known. In my own journey, I’ve never felt more loved and cared for by God than in my darkest hours. When we grieve, we are comforted.

Be present
. Let’s be present. Let’s love unconditionally. Eye to eye, we must be honest about our own struggles. Especially in the church, no one should have to hide or sneak around or double his or her dose. Let’s be on-call in the late night hours, when the phone rings and we are summoned to show up. What if our communities of faith were the one place you could count on to find a listening ear, a hand to hold, another loving human being with a compassionate and sensitive response?

Don’t pretend to have all the answers. 
Let’s not shame mental illness with the judgment of spiritual weakness. As Christians, we believe this side of heaven all disease, sickness and pain is rooted in a world broken by sin. But there are real consequences to living amidst the mess. To oversimplify these complexities would be naive at best, negligent at worst. Faith should never undermine the necessity of doctors, of medications and therapy, because we must deploy every effort afforded to us when we tackle our brokenness.

I’m comforted to know that even in this tragic moment, America’s beloved pastor still teaches us. Warren’s sensitivity and understanding in the closing words of his letter give hope for a new posture within the church. He acknowledged that “Kay and I often marveled at (Matthew’s) courage to keep moving in spite of relentless pain. I’ll never forget how many years ago … Matthew said, ‘Dad, I know I’m going to heaven. Why can’t I just die and end this pain?’ But he kept going for another decade.”

With that kind of honest, raw vulnerability and perspective, who wouldn’t want Rick Warren to be their pastor? Or their dad, for that matter.

Rebekah Lyons is the author of Freefall to Fly: A Breathtaking Journey Toward a Life of Meaning. She writes on womanhood, purpose and mental health at RebekahLyons.com. 

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