Death Our Foe (part 2)

Consider these stats on suicide from the National Institute of Mental Health:

— In 2015, suicide was the second-highest cause of death for 15-24 year-olds and for 25-34 year olds in the United States (CDC data).
— By 2014, age-adjusted suicide rates had grown to 13.0 people per 100,000 in the United States (CDC data).
— In 2015, a staggering 1.6% of all U.S. 18-25 year-olds attempted suicide. That’s one in every 63 (NSDUH data).

These stats are helpful inasmuch as they capture the destructiveness of the mental illness epidemic in America. Even so, mere numbers cannot capture the loss felt by even one family mourning the death of a loved one to depression. In my previous post, I argued that the church, as the fellowship of eternal life, ought to fight against depression, a bringer of death. But how can the church fight against depression?

This is one of the central questions of A Road Called Hope. In fact, the desire to see my friends in Christ face mental illness in solidarity with those who suffer it was the central motivation behind my creating this blog. Here are three ways in which the church can fight against depression, and ultimately against death:

1. Pray for the mentally ill: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard congregational prayers for a litany of its ill or bereaved members. Would we consider adding the ill in spirit to our corporate prayer lists, if they are willing? There are two great benefits of doing so. Firstly, Christ answers the prayer of faith and can save the lives of the suicidal. Secondly, praying openly for the mentally ill validates our life-and-death struggle and empowers us to ask for help when we need to. Which brings us to…

2. Provide concrete assistance: Straight after I left in the hospital, I stayed with dear friends from church for a little over a week. They hosted my mother and I, fed us, cared for us, let me play with their granddaughters and provided a place of healing for me. Staying with them and going to an intensive counseling program was far more healing for me than being in a psychiatric ward. Whose number can the mentally ill in your church call when all hell seems to break loose?

3. Dispel the stigma: We depressed Christians have long been ashamed in the church because of the myth that we are less godly. On the contrary! Christians who struggle with depression regularly have tested and tried the grace and providence of God over and over and over again, and have a valuable perspective to share with the church, especially bereaved or ill Christians. Remove the stigma of mental illness in the church, and empower depressed Christians to serve in the name of Jesus. This is perhaps the greatest antidote the church can offer to the deadliness of depression.

There are few things that I’ve found more meaningful than the fight against death. Do you have a story of fighting against the temptation to commit suicide, or helping someone else to? I’d love to hear about it! Please comment below (if you’re in the home page, you’ll need to click on the post title and scroll down).

Death our Foe (Part 1)

Have you ever had someone near you die?

To be honest, I have not. I’ve seen my closest friends grieve the loss of loved ones, and I’ve been in communities that mourn the death of a cherished member. But I’ve never had someone really close to me die.

Here’s what I’m told it’s like: there are waves of grief, sadness, anger, despair. One moment life was normal, and then the next the tint of existence seems to have darkened. Hauntingly, the rest of life continues as normal—but how can there be a normal anymore? Oftentimes, the initial shock is followed by painful introspection, as one’s relation with the bereaved is interrogated and brought into question. The ‘what-ifs’ come as a flood and pierce the mourning with regret. Encouragements, considerate or not, are evaluated, accepted, rejected, clung to, wrung out until there is nothing left in them and the mourning continues on.

If we take St. Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection seriously, then taking up the fight against death is one of the central tasks of the Christian life. Death is not, as many American Christians have assumed, simply a passage to disembodied bliss. As in 1 Cor. 15:26: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” To die is to suffer a defeat, albeit a temporary one. Though death has, as Paul explains, been robbed of its sting, it still witnesses to the power of sin and to the corruptibility of all life before the resurrection to come. Death is still our enemy. To fight against death with the armor of God—faith, hope, truth, righteousness, the readiness of the gospel—is the Christian’s war. Alternatively, to hold fast to faith, hope and love is to fight death, which together with sin and the devil has been considered one of the great enemies of humankind. And to fight death is to fight its causes.

Depression is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Consider these sobering stats about depression, taken from Solomon’s Noonday Demon:

— “Worldwide, including the developing world, depression accounts for more of he disease burden, as calculated by premature death plus healthy life-years lost to disability, than anything else but heart disease. Depression claims more years than war, cancer, and AIDS put together. Other illnesses, from alcoholism to heart disease, mask depression when it causes them; if one takes that into consideration, depression may be the biggest killer on earth.”

— “The statistic traditionally given is that 15 percent of depressed people will eventually commit suicide; this figure still holds for those with extreme illness. Recent studies that include milder depression show that 2 to 4 percent of depressives will die by their own hand as a direct consequence of the illness.”

As Solomon goes on to argue, the human struggle against mental illness is one of the defining fights of modernity, similar to the cause of environmental preservation (and, I would add, cancer treatment, racial reconciliation, economic justice and gender equality). It is a struggle for life, against death. Like these other great struggles, it concerns all countries, races and cultures. It is a battle that will be won and lost simultaneously in the lives of millions and millions who do not know each other but face the same enemy—depression, and ultimately death.

What if the war against depression was waged first and foremost by the church? Why shouldn’t it be? As heirs of eternal life, shouldn’t we be fighting against one of the greatest causes of death?

Surely. But how? More to come on Sunday.

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Towards A Spirituality of Depression

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be creating posts inspired by Andrew Solomon’s excellent Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression which I picked up at Powell’s iconic bookstore in Portland just a couple of days ago and since enjoyed thoroughly.

I recall Dr. Mark Talbot, a well-respected professor of mine, talking about a book on psychology written from a reductive materialist perspective. “To be sure,” he said, “the author and I differ at several important points. But as I’ve read his work, I realized how very much we agree on.” In the same vein, I think that it’s extremely valuable for Christians to read books on psychology that are not explicitly written from a Christian perspective. Why? Just because an anthropology is not explicitly Christian does not mean it’s wrong. Additionally, digging deep into books written with a different set of fundamental claims concerning meaning and reality can sharpen our own Christian claims to the same. (All this and more you’ll learn if you get a philosophy major at Wheaton College!).

Paradoxically, I’ve found Solomon’s anthropology thus far more orthodox than a certain common quasi-Christian understanding of human beings—dualism. Dualism, which has its roots in platonic philosophy, posits a fundamental distinction between spirit and body. Not surprisingly, this almost always leads to a hypervaluation of the spiritual at the expense of material things, a misplaced emphasis on the other-worldly and unbiblical disdain for the this-worldly.

If this quasi-Christian dualism is allowed to hold sway over the Christian behavioral clinic, it will render depression either a bodily illness or a spiritual malady. More often than not, the physiological causes of depression will be neglected at the expense of supposedly superior “spiritual” remedies. The problem here is not believing that the gospel of Christ brings good news to the downhearted, the problem is separating human beings into bodies and souls and claiming that the body cannot be a cause of spiritual illness, nor medicine a remedy.

Solomon, however, articulates a more holistic understanding of depression when he writes (I quote him at length): “Chemistry is often called on to heal the rift between body and soul. The relief people expressed when a doctor says their depression is “chemical” is predicated on a belief that there is an integral self that exists across time, and on a fictional divide between the fully occasioned sorrow and the utterly random one. The word chemical seems to assuage the feelings of responsibility people have for the stressed-out discontent of not liking their jobs, worrying about getting old, failing at love, hating their families. There is a pleasant freedom from guilt that has been attached to chemical If your brain is predisposed to depression, you need not blame yourself for it… [but] there is no essential self that lies pure as a vein of gold under the chaos of experience and chemistry.”

I’m eager to see the church move towards an attitude towards depression which incorporates both the spiritual and the bodily. What if we weren’t fooled by the twin lies that depression was either physiological or spiritual?

What if we seek to bring healing to the whole person, not just their spirit or their mind or their body?

What if we remembered that Christ healed those troubled in body and spirit, and do the same for the depressed?

To be sure, even if we take these things into account, we’re still left with many more questions than answers, first and foremost: how does the interaction between mind and body work in cases of depression? Short answer: I don’t know. But I’ll return to this question later, likely in my upcoming posts about Solomon’s Noonday Demon.

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Over the summer, I worked at HoneyRock Camp in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. The first couple of weeks that I worked there, I hardly knew if I was going to be able to stay another day. The depression & anxiety that had landed me in the hospital just a few short weeks ago threatened repeatedly to send me home. Even so, I was able to persevere through a brutal training time and enjoy a meaningful and most of a productive summer at camp ministering to ninth-grade campers and their counselors.

Two Sundays ago, just one week before the end of my employment at HoneyRock, I came to the nurse’s with a panic attack. All I thought I needed was a quiet place to rest for a couple of hours and call my girlfriend. The nurse thought differently, and explained that she could not safely release me back to camp without further medical attention: my two choices were to leave camp temporarily and go to the hospital, or depart for good.

Waves of frustration, anger, sadness and shame rolled over me, engulfing me in their violent surge. After all the work that I’d done to stay healthy for the whole summer, was I going to have to leave now? What of the campers and the counselors that I was leaving behind? Couldn’t I just be a “normal” person, capable of holding down a job for an extended amount of time? How would I manage to provide for myself and my loved ones in the future?

In the last two weeks, much of the shame that I felt that dark evening has been overcome by the love and compassion of my girlfriend and her family. Yet doubts about my career still remain, and likely will for the rest of my life. My mental illness makes life very difficult even in the absence of the bustle and hustle of a job. Add the responsibility of a full-time job, and making it through one more year or even one more day can seem an extraordinary task.

And it would be easier if finding a job was merely a practical concern, merely a box to tick off on the long lists of tasks that make the rest of existence possible. Yet Christians such as I who believe in the already/not-yet of Christ’s lordship over all creation cannot think of work as a mere means to the end, but hold that the work is meaningful in itself. That working is not only a career but a calling. And if this is so, any mental illness that prevents a person from working is not only a hindrance to her money-making but to her life’s vocation.

Or is it?

When scripture speaks of vocation, it does not only or even especially think of a person’s line of work. In fact, the Bible speaks of calling primarily as a summons to love, to life in Christ, to holiness (e.g. Eph. 4:1-3, 2 Pet. 1:10). Contrary to some Protestant understandings of vocation, the primary vocation of every believer in Christ is not determined by a job that they have chosen, but Christ’s choice for them. God does not first call us to a job, but to a kingdom.

I’m still disappointed about having to leave HoneyRock early, and, if I’m honest, still worried about my job prospects in the future. But as a follower of Christ, my primary calling is irrevocable. It has nothing to do with my capacity to overcome my own mental illness well enough to be able to work. It has everything to do with my pursuing the tasks of faith, hope and love. We are not called to a career, but to a hope.

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Truth & Companionship

I’m a natural extrovert, so when a bout of depression hits, the best thing for me is to get in good & trusted company pronto. For a long time, I accused myself for this. Why could I not be a good Christian and find peace and victory from waiting on the Lord in prayer and solitude? Why could I not glean encouragement from the reading of scripture? When I asked these questions, the lies of the enemy came thick and fast: “you’re unworthy, you aren’t really following Christ, you just need to try harder and get your crap together.” And for years I believed them.

But now I’ve started to think differently about all this. I’ve realized that encounters with the living God are not necessarily or even primarily solitary experiences. In fact, for many, they happen most often within the context of the faithful community, the beloved lovers of God. What this means is that it is no less spiritual to find solace in the company of others than in solitude, especially if depression makes solitude unsafe. If we take St. Paul’s understanding of the body of Christ seriously, every believer in Jesus that we find is in fact Christ to us—Christ to love and be loved, Christ to speak to us and be spoken to.

As Bonhoeffer puts it, the word of Christ in the mouth of a sister or brother is sometimes more powerful than the word of Christ in our own heart. This is a truth that witnesses both to our dependency and desire for community as human beings but also to the power of Christ to work through us, around us, despite us. In the mystery of God’s goodness, my weakness so often coincides with another’s strength. So often, another is ready & willing to speak truth to me precisely when & where I need to hear it. This means that, when I am depressed, I do not need to fear that I am abandoned to search for truth and meaning on my own, but can lean into the breast of Christ and receive comfort and truth from the members of his body.

With this post, as with others, I would love to hear what you think! When you are depressed, do you more often find solace in solitude or in community? How have you experienced Christ working through others to comfort and restore you when you’re down? Please leave a comment in the comment box (If you’re on the home page, you’ll need to click on the post title to do this). And please share this post/blog with your friends on social media!

Living in the Extremes

Just a couple of days ago, Rebecca* told me: “God teaches you the most in the extremes.” “Well that’s great,” I remarked half-jokingly, “because I live in the extremes.”

It’s true. Bipolar depression has created an extraordinary sensitivity in me to the very best and the very worst aspects of human existence. For better and worse, life rarely seems just OK or average to me—either all creation seems to sing for joy or, more often, all hell seems to have broken loose. It’s as if someone was adjusting my personal EQ and cut out my emotional mid-range. My heart is volcanic soil—both extraordinarily fertile and extremely prone to catastrophe.

I used to think that this givenness to extremities was a liability. What could be worse than constantly swinging back and forth between unpredictable moods that arise as quickly as tropical storms and leave bounty or devastation in their wake? To be sure, to live on an emotional yo-yo is unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst. But I can’t say that I haven’t learned because of it. I’ve learned to accept my own lack of control—one might say, my own creatureliness—over and over and over again. I’ve learned that there is more to life than what I can see at any particular moment from being repeatedly reassured that the terror that my mind conjures up on a regular basis is indeed merely a mental image and has no relation to reality. And I’ve learned to trust that which is constant through every trial—the love of God, oftentimes expressed in the love of those closest to me.

St. Julian of Norwich, one of the most influential mystics who ever lived, experienced something very similar to the vertiginous mood swings which are commonplace for me and so many others in one of her spiritual visions. She writes: “My soul rested in a state of such delightful security and powerful bliss that there was no fear, no sorrow, or physical pain that could be suffered that would have bothered me. And then again I was suffering. And then I was in bliss. Back and forth—first one, then the other—maybe twenty times. In the times of joy I could I could have joined St. Paul in saying, “Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ!” When I was suffering, I could have said with St. Peter, “Lord, save me; I am perishing! What this revelation showed me is that some souls benefit from this range of feelings. Sometimes we are surrounded with the comforting presence of God; other times we feel as if we had failed and are left to ourselves. God wants us to know that he supports us equally in well and woe. But for our own benefit he sometimes leaves us alone with ourselves. This is not because we have committed any transgression. When it happened to me, I had done nothing bad enough to make God abandon me. It was very sudden. But I had not earned that wonderful blessed feeling, either. Our Beloved freely gives us joy, and sometimes he allows us to suffer. Both are one love” (Mirabai Starr, Julian of Norwich: The Showings: A Contemporary Translation).

Is there something to be gained from the up and down, even though it is desperately hard? I think so, and Lady Julian does too.

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The Desperate Cause of Hope

Oftentimes when I share about my journey through depression, people seem to grasp intuitively the importance of the fight for hope. Their eyes will soften and their face grow serious. And, not infrequently, they’ll say something truly meaningful. Even if the words “I’m so sorry, I’ll be praying for you, I love you, let me know if there’s anything I can do” are often heard by the beloved survivors of depression, the tone and behind these phrases can infuse them with a world of meaning and care. What is it that elicits these snapshots of divine grace?

Surely, it is not the suffering itself. The darkness of depression has nothing attractive about it neither to the sufferer nor their loved ones. In itself It is merely self-accusation, exhaustion, meaningless and hopelessness. As Henri Nouwen wisely says in The Return of the Prodigal Son, “In the context of a compassionate embrace, our brokenness may appear beautiful, but our brokenness has no other beauty but the beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it.” As in the parable of the prodigal son, the desperate state of those who are mentally ill elicits compassion and love. But compassion and love cannot exist independently of hope, and I think it is because there is something about the task of hope that is utterly captivating that people respond as passionately as they do to the mental illness of those who they love.

Compassion sees the state of the person who is mentally ill and sorrows with it, hope sets its face against all obstacles and carries that person forward. To hope with someone who is mentally ill is to not be satisfied with their illness, but to kindly and gently walk with them towards healing. To have empathy is to experience sorrow with the sufferer, to hope with them is to move forward with them. God, as Barth puts it, has determined from eternity not to be God without us. To hope with someone is to not desire to experience shalom without them, it is to stand in solidarity with them precisely until you and they reach the abundant life of Christ—now in part, fully at the resurrection.

The task of hope is not limited to those who experience mental illness and those who love them—it belongs to all believers and all who fight against injustice, oppression and violence. But the soul of everyone who battles the interior darkness is a microcosm of the cosmic battle against despair, for hope. Let all of us keep fighting until hope is realized!

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Why Blog?

The vision that gradually became A Road Called Hope has been more than a month in the making and took a great deal of thought. Since when I first had the idea, the thought of creating a serious blog concerning faith and depression has gone from a passing thought to a nagging curiosity to something like a passion-and it’s just getting started.

If you’re not familiar with how the process of starting a large-scale blog goes, let me tell you what I’m learning. You have to find a platform (WordPress) and a Webhost (Bluehost), create a domain name, choose a theme, design your site, and start writing. But all that is the easy part-the hard part is gathering a collective of readers and writers who are interested in the same topic and leading them into community. This gathering involves creating and editing content that is both correct and useful as well as constantly inviting new faces into the community. While meeting new people stimulates me, all this work is exhausting! Why would anyone do it?

For me, there’s an obvious answer: Christians need to be more aware of depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15.7 million American adults had at least one major depressive episode in the span of the last year (2014 data). That’s 6.7% of all American adults! Yet so often, those in the church who suffer from depression remain silent and those who don’t remain uninformed. Just as diagnosis is the first step to treating an illness, so too is awareness the first step to addressing the social stigma associated with depression in the church.

However, my hope is that this blog would do far more than make aware. I hope that it will become a living and learning community of depression survivors and those who love them, as well as a treasure chest of resources-spritual, psychological, social…-for those who fight every day. I would love if you would spread the word about this blog and join those who embrace the Road Called Hope.

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