Depression and Memory

My first post on this topic: Depression—The Triggers that Surprise

Our ability to remember is an amazing gift from God. I have always had a good memory; it isn’t something I developed… it was just there. I don’t know whether memory problems are generally part of depression, but here I relate how they were connected in my situation. Over the years I have discovered that memory can be good, bad, or confusing.

Memory: The Good 

From grade school through college, I was fascinated with numbers. My memory allowed me to be both fast and good. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I could do most math problems in my head. In fact (this was in the days before calculators!), in college I took 85 credits of math and 35 credits of physics—and never learned how to use the slide rule. I could write down about every 3rd or 4th step, keeping everything else in my head.

I could remember dates, people, and events very easily. When reading, I could often remember where something was on a page and sometimes the page number. No, I don’t have photographic memory. But memory was of great value. If I have driven somewhere, many years later I can drive through that area and remember exactly where to turn—and I don’t even need to know “that I turn after the third oak tree on the right after the end of the fence posts.”

Memory: The Bad

As a Christian, I have found memory both good and bad. I can easily memorize things, where they are in the Bible, Greek and Hebrew vocabulary/grammar, etc. So what is bad about memory? I can remember details of events, especially bad ones. I can remember sins I have committed years and years ago. Even more, I can remember the hurt and pain I have caused through my sins.

And that is when memory seems to be no longer a blessing, but a curse. While occasionally I can remember someone else’s sin against me, there is not the intensity and continuing rehashing as with my own sin. For several decades the memories also meant that I didn’t (couldn’t) sleep at night. My mind was too busy, going over the pain, hurt, anger, frustration, etc. of whatever I had done wrong.

In the long slide into depression, my memory took on the role of the accuser… Now instead of the wonderful aspects of my memory, the ugliness of myself, my sin, my inner turmoil were my constant companions. I didn’t need someone else to help me on this frantic descent, because I was more than sufficient, and my memory kicked into high gear. Oh, there were others who consciously or unconsciously aided me in this memory deconstruction. Even now, as the worst of the depression has passed, my memory serves me well and I remember… sort of.

Memory: The Confused

Perhaps most surprising for me is when my memory failed me in the final year before my breakdown and in the first two years afterward. There are gaps… During that time, and since then, my wife might mention something that happened, and I would look puzzled as if “what is she talking about?” To me, it never happened. And the confusing part—for me, I was usually the one who could recall events, conversations, etc.

And so, what had been a normal part of my life, a well functioning memory, was no longer “normal.” But the gaps are primarily limited to that three year period of time. Sometimes I get frustrated that I have gaps in my memory. Other times it doesn’t bother me. Mostly it confused me. In one sense during that three year period, it seemed like I was floating along as an outsider to everything that was happening. In that sense I could even imagine my memory gaps related to my floating alonside the action of life and then switching to living in the midst of that life. Mostly that three year period is a confusing time for me because of my fragmented memory.

Memory: So What?

Memory is a wonderful gift from God. And for most of my life, it has served me well. During the darkest days of depression and in the aftermath, memory failed me, delighted me, and confused me. I think the remembrance of sin and its effects stayed with me, and that haunted me the most.

Yet, right there is where God in His graciousness has worked his marvelous, loving work. In Jeremiah 31:34 when prophesying about the new covenant (testament), he writes:

[Yahweh declares:] “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

God in His infinite wisdom and perfection states clearly that he will not remember my sins. That means that with my memory I am trying to “be better than God at the memory game.” My memories of my sins were tearing me apart. Those sins had been forgiven by God, and now even the memories of them were gone! That was overwhelming to me—and freeing. Forgiveness through the Word, through the Lord’s Supper, through absolution was no longer a part of life, it was the heart of my life, a life which would be destroyed by the memories, but is now forgiven, restored, and enhanced by God’s forgetfulness.

Over time, I have discovered that the memory gaps no longer have a hold on me. But even more, the memories of sin have been transformed into memories of God’s faithfulness and His forgiveness and His love. “And I will remember their sin no more.” God grant me that kind of memory.

See God Has Amnesia for more reflection on this grace aspect of “remembering.”

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Depression—The Triggers that Surprise

I have battled depression for many decades, and most of that time I was not even aware of it. During that time, to even consider what was happening as depression was considered a sign of weakness—and that could not happen! As I sank deeper into depression, though, the more I fought against that possibility the deeper the hole became. My desire to avoid that, eventually led me to work 18 hours/day, then 20 hours/day, then 22 hours/day. Two hours sleep is not healthy—for anyone. For one battling the unknown depression, it was disastrous. Ultimately, following a dramatic two year slide my body, my mind, and even my spirit rebelled, and gave up.

When you reach absolute bottom, it is not a pleasant place to be. I could neither read nor write. I couldn’t concentrate. And I couldn’t bear to be with other people. I was lonely, yet wanted to be left alone. Lamentations 3:17-20 captured where I was:

My soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness. So I say, “My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the LORD.”
Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me.

I received professional help and medicine—notice, I received, I couldn’t even take the initiative to get help on my own. Over the next two years of recovery, as my body and mind rested, I was led to discover and even recognize what had happened to me. But my ultimate help came from God. Again in Lamentations 3:21-24

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.
The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I have hope in Him.”

In my mind, I did not want to go back to the darkness that slowly strangled me. God’s promises and deliverance were my new home for comfort and peace. And yet…

The Triggers that Surprise

At times I was caught … by that downward slide! What was happening? I thought I have moved beyond this experience. It can’t be happening again! I don’t want it, I can’t stand it one more time!

It took time, but finally I began to recognize that there were triggers around me that caused such a backward slide into depression. The triggers can be events (holiday, birthday, etc.), meeting certain people (who may have had no role in the original depression), or even time of year.

For me, the big trigger was the time of year. Every year from late January to early March, I sense this looming darkness in my spirit. It’s not something that charged into me, but a slow squeezing effect. And that brought back the memories and fears of the worst days of the depression and collapse.

Through this process, I realized that I was going back to the longer hours, if my body would permit it (thankfully, it would not). My approach changed from focusing on more work to focusing on protecting my heart—not an easy thing to do in weakness. During this 6-7 week period, I had to be careful about how much sleep I needed. I found that after the breakdown, sleep was easier for me. I couldn’t physically keep up the hours. And that was good.

Spiritually, I rediscovered how critical the Lord’s Supper was to me. Also, I had to specifically concentrate on maintaining daily Scripture reading, and prayer. For some people, this seems so obvious, “Well, duh!” But recovering from depression meant for me a daily battle, and not always successful. And as difficult as it was at times, I needed to be around people. Their fellowship, even when almost no one knew about my background and what I was experiencing, was critical for my stability. I didn’t even need to talk, just to be around people was important.

It has been 14 years,a and the trigger of winter still rises every year. It is not as intense as it had been in the first 3-4 years. But it is there; the battle has begun anew in the last two weeks.

There are other triggers. Occasionally I will hear a song that brings back the depression in all its ugliness. Other times, it will be a smell that evokes memories. Even glimpses of photos will take me back 50 years… and the battle of depression, unknown at the time, comes upon me.

Once again I am drawn back to Lamentations 3:1-24

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.
The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I have hope in Him.”

The LORD is our shepherd

Two items: As I am installed as pastor tonight, I am reminded of who is really the shepherd. Also, each day I will include a link to another blogger for our prayer focus that day.

John 10:11 NAS

[Jesus said:] “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”

Psalm 23 NAS95 (modified)

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Prayer focus for today:

Joy, who has a heart of compassion and has learned from God through the good and bad, finding that the LORD is indeed the Good Shepherd. http://joyinthisjourney.com/

Lord, in your infinite love and mercy you have reached into Joy’s life to bring ultimate comfort and hope even in the midst of suffering and sorrow. Grant your continued blessings on her and her family; especially bless her blogging that she may reach others with the good news of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen

One Thousand Gifts: 21-30

I am traveling this week, but still time for the weekly one thousand gifts, taking time to give thanks to God for all of life:

21. AALC Youth Gathering, Estes Park, CO
22. Great Leadership and Discipleship retreat on Saturday
23. shaving cream, makes it much easier to shave!
24. comfortable bed
25.  wonderful talk with son, DIL, and grand kids yesterday
26.  lively discussion in Bible class
27. receiving the Lord’s Supper yesterday
28. Keith, a wonderful friend and supporter over the past 25 years
29. light bulbs, allowing me to read
30. eyes, as part of God’s creation, marvelous gift of sight

One thousand gifts

The Gap in Contemporary Christian Music

I have been wanting to post on this topic for a long time. Interestingly, Joy addressed this in a recent post http://joyinthisjourney.com/2011/05/how-happy-songs-hurt/ . While I am traveling I cannot post my full thoughts, but her post gives us pause to consider what the real gap is in contemporary Christian music. Stay tuned.

Just for clarification, what Joy writes about is her experience of the choices of contemporary Christian worship, not whether there are appropriate songs (like laments) within the realm of contemporary Christian music. That will be part of my next post. To look at the gap in terms of music (is there a gap?) and in terms of experience (why the gap?)

Musical Choice, Worship, and Excellence

Contemporary Christian worship in a Western co...
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One thing I stress with those who are leading worship or who will lead worship: strive for excellence. This includes the choice of music. For pastors especially this is critical in knowing your people and what is part of their ethos.

At one of my congregations, I would select hymns several months ahead (six month advance planning), picking hymns that I had known for decades. My assumption was that the people would likewise appreciate these “well-known” hymns. Our organist at the time was excellent in knowing what I wanted and what people could sing. He would practice on Saturdays, and usually about once every three months he would call me and say, “Pastor, the hymn text is great, but the people do not know that melody. Can I suggest this alternate melody?” Seems like a minor point, but what a difference it made for those worshiping that day.

I also took that as an opportunity to learn, namely if I wanted to introduce a new hymn/song, it was at least one month of “practicing”: 1) prelude, 2) choir number, 3) practice with congregation before service with choir, 4) sing it as part of worship. It worked very well.

When I first introduced contemporary worship, I went with the choices (after screening for theology). But I soon learned that the worshipers did not always appreciate the “usual” presentation of the songs. One example includes singing and repeating the same verses and choruses many times. Note that this is not the same as singing five verses to a song, where the melody is repeated; this is repeating the exact same words.

Lest we think this is a problem with just contemporary songs, consider some of the hymns that are great and have 15 verses. Is it wise to sing all 15 verses in the service? I learned the hard way that it is not wise to do that.

While there can be value to repeating words, there is also a saturation point, when the worshiper says, “Enough already.” Pastors and worship leaders need to know their people and know how this works out in practice. “What is the purpose of the repetition?” For some the repetition may be logical and even enjoyable; for others it may become irritating after the second repetition.

How can we strike a balance that enhances the worship life for everyone? This is where the issue of excellence comes into play. It requires the pastor(s), musicians, choirs, praise teams, everyone to be together, to meet regularly and review what is important and why.

Worship, Music, and Me?

The Liber usualis uses square notation, as in ...
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Actually the title should be: God, worship, and music. And I particpate and benefit from his work in Word and Sacrament. As a starting point you should know where I am coming from as I post this. Note that while I am a pastor, I am writing this more from the perspective of a worshiper.

Personal:

  • I am broken
  • unfixable on my own
  • forgiven and restored entirely because of what Jesus did, does, and will do

Music:

  • I cannot sing well, but I like to chant
  • I enjoy a variety of musical styles
  • I have played guitar for 49 years (for worship, community gatherings, and even weddings)
  • My favorite styles include bluegrass, old country, and liturgical

Faith:

  • What is most important? Justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ
  • What is the source of what is most important? The Bible
  • I confess the Christian faith as a Lutheran (referring to the three ecumenical creeds plus theLutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord).
  • Doctrine expressed in music is important and has to be consistent with the above.

Pastor:

  • I grew up within the Lutheran liturgical tradition of the LCMS. That was when the1941 hymnal, The Lutheran Hymnal, was at its growing peak in the 1950’s. I heard all the great hymns of faith, experienced the changing liturgical seasons with the colors, readings, knew page 5 (non-communion service of the Word), page 15 (communion service with the Word), and page 32 (Matins). I loved it, and still do! I memorized many hymns and could tell you the name of the hymn with only a few notes played (“Name that Tune” was popular in those days!).
  • I have led worship, using TLH, Lutheran Worship (LW), Lutheran Service Book (LSB), Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW), Creative Worship (from CPH), contemporary worship, and have produced my own orders of service.

Worship, music, and me?

God is the initiator and I am a responder to God’s grace in worship. That means I don’t start it, nor do I sustain it, God does. I marvel at the gracious God who gifted people throughout the ages to express the Christian faith and the response to it through music in such varied and beautiful ways. That means I see a place for the Gregorian chants, majestic hymns, and contemporary pieces. But I am selective (eclectic) based on how well the piece holds together theologically consistent with the Faith statements above. Not everything written during and after the Reformation is appropriate. Likewise not everything written today should be used in worship.

I have experienced times when a majestic hymn sung in a minor key was so emotionally moving that I couldn’t even sing with my voice, but my heart was right there, rejoicing. I have experienced worship with a contemporary song that moved me the same way. The spiritual, emotional, and mental harmony was beyond words. But those times are rare.

Other times I have been in services where the majestic hymn must have been in the mind of someone I didn’t understand. When I hear a Chorale that is well done, it is beautiful and powerful. But don’t ask me to sing it. Please don’t shoot me, either. I’m telling it like it is. Other times I have been in contemporary worship where the music is “hot” and the worship team is raising a storm, and my soul cringes. I can’t sing that. Please don’t shoot me, either. I’m telling it like it is.

The Psalms show such a divergence of emotions but always within the context of the covenant that God made with them. I think a liturgical service provides the most consistent environment for experiencing the wide variety of effects that God does when he works in us. When I say this I am not dismissing contemporary music out of hand. Rather, this means that the framework for expressing the Christian faith is important. The liturgical development over the centuries has produced a rich blend of God’s Word-our response interweaving. Contemporary music can fit within that heritage.

Surprising to most people, the liturgy is not a straight-jacket, hemming in a person in faith expression. About a decade ago I helped establish a Bible College at a cutting edge charismatic church. When I taught the worship class, I asked them to evaluate a liturgical service and their own contemporary service over a four week period. They were shocked to learn that the contemporary service was much more rigid than any liturgical service they had experienced.

I have much more to say on this topic, let me conclude that the starting point for worship is always God and his Word; the ending point is always God and his Word. But we cannot forget who God is working on—us, poor, miserable sinners. That means worship includes spiritual, doctrinal, and emotional elements, and we cannot forget that. God doesn’t.