“Darkness is My Only Companion”

“Lord Jesus Christ, you are for me medicine when I am sick; you are my strength when I need help; you are life itself when I fear death; you are the way when I long for heaven; you are light when all is dark; you are my food when I need nourishment.”

Ambrose of Milan (340-397)

Our theology makes all the difference in fighting depression, writes Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Author of “Darkness, Is My Only Companion” and Episcopal priest. Here is an excerpt where she introduces the depression of Christians.

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In his Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis says that suffering is uniquely difficult for the Christian, for the one who believes in a good God. If there were no good God to factor into the equation, suffering would still be painful, and  ultimately meaningless.

For the Christian, who believes in the crucified and risen Messiah, suffering is always meaningful. It is meaningful because of the one in whose suffering we participate, Jesus. This is neither to say, of course, that suffering will be pleasant, nor that it should be sought. Rather, in the personal suffering of the Christian, one finds a correlate in Christ’s suffering, which gathers up our tears and calms our sorrows and points us toward his resurrection.

In the midst of a major mental illness, we are often unable to sense the presence of God at all. Sometimes all we can feel is the complete absence of God, utter abandonment by God, the sheer ridiculousness of the very notion of a loving and merciful God. This cuts to the very heart of the Christian and challenges everything we believe about the world and ourselves.

I have a chronic mental illness, a brain disorder that used to be called manic depression, but now is less offensively called bipolar disorder. I have sought help from psychiatrists, social workers, and mental health professionals; one is a Christian, but most of my helpers are not. I have been in active therapy with a succession of therapists over many years, and have been prescribed many psychiatric medications, most of which brought quite unpleasant side effects, and only a few of which relieved my symptoms. I have been hospitalized during the worst times and given electroconvulsive therapy treatments.

All of this has helped, I must say, despite my disinclination toward medicine and hospitals. They have helped me to rebuild some of “myself,” so that I can continue to be the kind of mother, priest, and writer I believe God wants me to be.

During these bouts of illness, I would often ask myself: How could I, as a faithful Christian, be undergoing such torture of the soul? And how could I say that such torture has nothing to do with God? This is, of course, the assumption of the psychiatric guild in general, where faith in God is often viewed at best as a crutch, and at worst as a symptom of disease.

bad-times-333-300x250How could I, as a Christian, indeed as a theologian of the church, understand anything in my life as though it were separate from God? This is clearly impossible. And yet how could I confess my faith in that God who was “an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1) when I felt entirely abandoned by that God? And if this torture did have something to do with God, was it punishment, wrath, or chastisement? Was I, to use a phrase of Jonathan Edwards’s, simply a “sinner in the hands of an angry God”?

I started my journey into the world of mental illness with a postpartum depression after the birth of our second child. News outlets are rife with stories of women who destroy their own children soon after giving birth. It is absolutely tragic. Usually every instinct in the mother pushes toward preserving the life of the infant. Most mothers would give their own lives to protect their babies. But in postpartum depression, reality is so bent that that instinct is blocked. Women who would otherwise be loving mothers have their confidence shaken by painful thoughts and feelings.

Depression is not just sadness or sorrow.

Depression is not just negative thinking. Depression is not just being “down.” It’s walking barefoot on broken glass; the weight of one’s body grinds the glass in further with every movement. So, the weight of my very existence grinds the shards of grief deeper into my soul. When I am depressed, every thought, every breath, every conscious moment hurts.

And often the opposite is the case when I am hypomanic: I am scintillating both to myself, and, in my imagination, to the whole world. But mania is more than speeding mentally, more than euphoria, more than creative genius at work. Sometimes, when it tips into full-blown psychosis, it can be terrifying. The sick individual cannot simply shrug it off or pull out of it: there is no pulling oneself “up by the bootstraps.”

And yet the Christian faith has a word of real hope, especially for those who suffer mentally. Hope is found in the risen Christ. Suffering is not eliminated by his resurrection, but transformed by it. Christ’s resurrection kills even the power of death, and promises that God will wipe away every tear on that final day.

But we still have tears in the present.

We still die. In God’s future, however, death itself will die. The tree from which Adam and Eve took the fruit of their sin and death becomes the cross that gives us life.

The hope of the Resurrection is not just optimism, but keeps the Christian facing ever toward the future, not merely dwelling in the present. But the Christian hope is not only for the individual Christian, nor for the church itself, but for all of Creation, bound in decay by that first sin: Cursed is the ground because of you … It will produce thorns and thistles for you …” (Gen. 3:17-18).

This curse of the very ground and its increase will be turned around at the Resurrection. All Creation will be redeemed from pain and woe. In my bouts with mental illness, this understanding of Christian hope gives comfort and encouragement, even if no relief from symptoms. Sorrowing and sighing will be no more. Tears will be wiped away. Even fractious [unruly, irritable] brains will be restored.

“Darkness: My Only Companion”

Kathryn Greene-McCreight is assistant priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut, and author of Darkness Is My Only Copanion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006).

On the web:  http://www.hopeandhealing.org/contentPage.aspx?resource_id=311

 

 

I Still Grieve (But I Now Understand Grace)

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‘Who gathered this flower?’ The gardener answered, ‘The Master.’ And his fellow servant held his peace.”

It was November 13th, in the year of our Lord 1999, was unlike any day I have ever experienced. A beating with a baseball bat would seem more preferable. On this cold afternoon, hell was unleashed on my wife and myself. What we encountered was soul-wrenching and profoundly tragic.

Perhaps a parent’s worst nightmare is the loss of a child. On this day we lost Elizabeth Grace. She was stillborn, which is rare these days– or so I have been told. She entered this world fully formed, a beautiful baby girl. Today, she would of been 22 years old, and maybe married, and planning a family of her own?

But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

2 Samuel 12:23, (When David’s newborn son died.)

Our loss was grievous, but we are not unique. Plenty of families have suddenly lost a child. I can truly commiserate with them. Somehow we are connected in a perverse way. It seems like an exclusive club, that requires a secret handshake, or something. Suddenly without warning, you are thrown into personal chaos, and very little is remotely decipherable, even to a believer.

The book of Ecclesiastes that there is a definite “time to mourn.”  Matthew tells us, “Blessed are those who mourn.” He does go on to say. “for they shall be comforted.” This comfort is available for any who choose to take it, but you can refuse it, if you really want to.

Grief unites us, but Jesus liberates us. Seriously. I can’t imagine meeting life without his care and comfort. He has been outstandingly gracious to this family. Sure there was pain, but there was also tenderness and a kind grace. Still, sometimes it felt like a “kick in the head.” (But I assure you– it was grace.)

What I still can’t understand is simply this. What would it have cost God to allow Elisabeth to live? I mean, what ‘skin off His nose’ would’ve it taken to let her live? I still to this day have questions, but I have decided to trust. (I trust Him after all, to save my soul.)

Those who have suffered will comprehend and grasp, the noxious environment of grief and loss. But we can only take what we are dealt. The sadness is there, but so is His comfort. Make no mistake, His love matches (or even exceeds) the pain and the loss of a child. Truly, God is a wonder and He is good.

I do know that He loves me, a weirdly rascalish, struggling disciple. He holds me close to His precious heart, and I will have no other gods except Him. I will not take up umbrage with Him on this. But I must believe that someday soon, I will truly and completely understand this.

Battle Scars

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It is a bad habit to try to teach without personal knowledge. We can preach, and yet we do not possess. This is one of the occupational hazards of those of us in our profession. It also seems to carry a horrible curse of spiritual sterility, that the wise believer can discern.

It’s been 13 years since a diagnosis of Bipolar 1 was made. I believe I was BP in my teens. Life is a roller-coaster for me, up and down, with a twist or two along the way. I am now fairly aware at 58 that much of my earthly existence has already been lived. Life can become such a grind. I’m tired and broken and ready for eternity.

“One should go to sleep as homesick passengers do, saying, “Perhaps in the morning we shall see the shore.”

–Henry Ward Beecher

Billy Bray (a bearer of an unfortunate name) was an illiterate Cornish evangelist in the 1850s. He was heard to pray this: “Lord, if any have to die this day, let it be me, for I am ready.” By faith, I think I do understand these sentiments. I am ready to go as well.

I love collecting good quotes. But here’s two more good ones:

“God buries His workmen but carries on His work.”   -Charles Wesley
“If we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a “wandering to find a home,” why should we not look forward to the arrival?”  – C.S. Lewis

Sorry if I’m being too maudlin. But the battle is so long, and it doesn’t ever let up, does it? We all can become weary after a while. What we need is to be ‘shut in’ with the Lord. The Word reminds us:

Strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”

Acts 14:22

“Tribulations” are common, and each must battle through them. And without being melodramatic, we each must walk through the blazing furnace. But I can also boldly attest that there is more than enough grace for each of us. We just need to become desperate enough. (Which shouldn’t be too hard).

Armor is given. Wearing it means you’ll survive (and thrive) to see another day. Those who may suggest that the Christian life is a “bed of roses,” I would say that they haven’t read Ephesians 6. If there is no war, why would the Holy Spirit tell us to put it on?

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” 

Eph. 6:10-11

We are just starting to learn we must fall in love with Jesus. He receives us with a massive kind of love. And His mercy meets us at every doubtful corner. You have His Word on it. Simply ask Him to come to you. 

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The Mangled Earrings of Joni Eareckson Tada

Joni's Mangled Earrings
Joni’s Mangled Earrings

A great lesson from Joni Eareckson Tada,

I once admired the earrings my friend, Ann, was wearing – they were square, smooth, flat, and made of gold. When I remarked how beautiful they were, she replied, “They’re yours!” Ann then proceeded to take them off and put them on my ears! Humbled by her gift, the earrings became a treasure. Once while wearing them at work, one slipped off my ear – looked but couldn’t find it, so I wheeled to my office door to ask for help.

That’s when I felt a clunk-clunk-clunk. The earring was impaled on my tire; it was ruined! That weekend I took it to a jeweler and asked, “Sir, can you make this mangled earring look like the smooth one?” He rubbed his chin and said, “I can’t make that one look like this one… But I can make this one look like that one!” He then took a mallet and hammered the smooth, square earring into a mangled mess! At first I was horrified, but now I realize that the misshapen earrings reflect the light more beautifully than when they were ‘normal.’ It’s a lesson reflected in this timeless poem:

When God wants to drill a man,
And thrill a man, and skill a man,
When God wants to make a man
To play the noblest part,
When He yearns with all His heart
To build so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Then watch His methods, watch His ways!

How He ruthlessly perfects,
Whom He royally elects;
How He hammers him and hurts him,
And with mighty blows converts him
Into shapes and forms of clay
Which only God can understand
While man’s tortured heart is crying
And he lifts beseeching hands…

Yet God bends but never breaks
When man’s good He undertakes;
How He uses whom He chooses,
And with mighty power, infuses him,
With every act induces him to try
His splendor out,
God knows what He’s about.

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Visit Joni Eareckson Tada and Friends at http://www.joniandfriends.org/. Her bio can be found at http://www.joniandfriends.org/jonis-corner/jonis-bio/.

When you visit this site you will find a lot of helpful resources to some pretty useful materials on the disability needs on an international level. 

Emails, Facebook, Podcasts, TV Series, and great teachings are just part of the daily ministries available. Anyone interested in being discipled with a strong disability emphasis not always heard anywhere else really should visit.

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