Depression, Worship, and Liturgy

This past week I participated in a Twitter dialog with several people regarding: #abuse, #depression, #trauma, #mentalhealth. I so appreciated the other people who endured one or more of the situations, and who shared their insights, questions, concerns, and especially their care for one another.

I commented that I had to step away because the discussion was becoming a trigger for me regarding depression. Another commented that maybe a better word to use is reflection. As I thought about (reflected) that, I see a distinction between the two: trigger is not something I can control. It happens, there is a reaction. Reflection is something I can do to think about what happened.

Today as I was reflecting on that and the triggers, I also thought about how as a Christian, is there something long term that can help put all of the experiences (the trauma as well as the triggers afterward) into perspective? So I will try to explain what has been my life and at times my only consolation.

The Liturgical Life

For me, I have spent my entire 69 years (except one year) within a (Lutheran) liturgical church environment. Thus, while my parents didn’t worship, they made sure us boys were there or our grandparents took us. I had all three liturgies memorized before I started school (Divine service, Matins, and Vespers). When I dated my future wife, she belonged to a church within same church body. It has been part of our relationship for 51 years.

Some might see a problem commenting that it becomes “just routine,” no thinking or engagement necessary. For me, that has never been an issue. In fact, just the opposite. Regardless of the year, circumstances, challenges, devastation, the constancy of the liturgy was a welcome relief. The liturgy invites me to speak and sing with others; it became a way to be part of something that was not affected by my personal challenges. 

In the worst times, I would be there, not speaking or singing, but I was part of a group expressing and sharing (speaking and singing) the Christian faith in the fullness and breadth of life itself. To be in their presence was reassuring, comforting. Eventually I could join in again. Not because someone demanded it, but because the invitation throughout was a call to me to be part of the church, the broken, messy, church. And at that time I was really broken, messy.

The Christian and Lament

When I was recovering from my complete breakdown I had friends who encouraged me to go to a contemporary worship service, to “cheer me up.” They said that the liturgy and hymns were too “dry, stale, even depressing.” I attended a few months, but in reality, the “cheer me up music” lasted only a day or so. I went back to a liturgical service. And I was at home.

I realized that the hymnal provided the liturgical framework and the hymns that addressed all aspects of the Christian life. Yes, days of rejoicing (Easter!!), but it also encompassed days of repentance (Ash Wednesday) and days of mourning. 

Here is one example of a hymn that reached to the very depths of what I was experiencing.

“Lord Jesus, Think on Me”

by Synesius of Cyrene, c. 375-430
Translated by Allen W. Chatfield, 1808-1896

1. Lord Jesus, think on me And purge away my sin;
From earth-born passions set me free And make me pure within.

2. Lord Jesus, think on me With many a care opprest;
Let me Thy loving servant be And taste Thy promised rest.

3. Lord Jesus, think on me Amid the battle’s strife;
In all my pain and misery Be Thou my Health and Life.

4. Lord Jesus, think on me Nor let me go astray;
Through darkness and perplexity Point Thou the heavenly way.

5. Lord Jesus, think on me When floods the tempest high;
When on doth rush the enemy, O Savior, be Thou nigh!

6. Lord Jesus, think on me That, when the flood is past,
I may the eternal brightness see And share Thy joy at last.

7. Lord Jesus, think on me That I may sing above
To Father, Spirit, and to Thee The strains of praise and love.

Notice how the hymn writer from the early 5th century captured what I was enduring in the 21st century. This is not a musty, soon to be forgotten “happy song” but a deeply reverent, powerful, and encouraging hymn for the broken. 

Even the melody reinforces this. Here is a beautiful a cappella (shortened) version: 

https://youtu.be/NqQ1IPOIZwA

I have more to write about the relationship between depression, etc. and worship. This at least gives you a sense of how I appreciate the sometimes somber, sometimes, heavy sense of life and how worship expresses that for me.

Our prayers continue
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Have you hugged your porcupine today?

Odd title, huh? Actually it is appropriate for today’s blog: the two sides of living with depression. One side involves the person who is depressed, the other side involves the people who live with the person who is depressed. And the porcupine imagery catches some of the tension and difficulty in living on either side of depression.

English: Photograph of two North American porc...
Hugged a porcupine lately?

One who struggles with depression is acutely aware of pain, suffering, woundedness, etc. When some one close wants to help, through words, or hugs, or just listening, the quills of the porcupine make it painful even for the helper. Often unknowingly the one helping may trigger some reaction (see Depression and Triggers) in the depressed person. It may bring back memories (see Depression and Memory) that cause further pain. The quills are getting sharper.

At the same time, for the depressed person, the quills pointing inward feel much larger, much sharper, and much more focused on the areas of pain. Thus, the helper is reaching out and getting stuck with quills, and may withdraw. Meanwhile, the depressed person is hurting more, and tends to withdraw. It is a catch-22, the depressed person needs more companionship in the best sense of that word, yet the encounter can be painful and self-defeating.

It doesn’t take long for the porcupine effect to close doors rather than open them. Thus, for the depressed person every event becomes intensified. Rejection is more acute, a sense of abandonment lurks behind every relationship. Not a winning combination.

For the person who is depressed, it really comes down to having a few people who will faithfully walk with you, not pressuring, not demanding, but to be there for you. In the darkest days, God was drawing me, even when I wasn’t aware of it. In the flesh, I was blessed with my wife, our son and daughter-in-law, and three elders and their wives. They stuck by me in the very worst of times. I marvel at their patience, their willingness to “put up with me.” And they did so for several years. Always supportive, always listening, always loving.

As I look back, I can see how difficult I was to live with. In the worst days they needed to direct me to do things, every day things that we most often take for granted. If someone has not been down that dark road of depression, it might seem silly to need help with simple tasks. My close circle of family and friends never once gave that impression. They demonstrated Christian fellowship in the best way possible.

Another aspect of companionship is to realize that I as the depressed person wanted to be around some people, but not necessarily participating in their discussion. It sounds odd, but for me I wanted to be a wall flower, listening and seeing others respond, but I didn’t want to speak or interact. It was almost as if I had to learn how to interact with people all over. And I didn’t trust myself on what or how I said things.

I have found that dialog was hard for me. In the slide down and coming out the other side of the depression valley (for me a 4-5 year process for the actual diagnosed depression), I sometimes would speak, but not appropriately. I don’t mean vulgar or filthy talk, but it was if I couldn’t see how my remarks affected others. Even now when the depression battle rages, I have to be careful on what I say; when I forget about that, it can have negative repercussions. Of course, that plunges me further into the recrimination of despair.

There were always two questions people would ask me: 1. Are you okay? 2.What can I do to help? I couldn’t tell whether I was okay, because I had been out of kilter for so many years. And I didn’t know enough about myself to ask for help, or even what kind of help I needed or wanted. The questions showed concern, but as a depressed person I wasn’t capable of providing even an intelligible response. That made me feel bad for a long time. As years have passed, I realize that neither I nor the other person knew what to say… And I am okay with not really answering. Those who care also can accept the lack of answers. Their love and presence spoke more than their questions, and more than any answer I could give.

For me the ultimate place to be with people and yet not be part of it was in worship. The liturgical worship service provides the environment to welcome, embrace, and lead people who are hurting. Confession: I was good at internally… I could beat myself up quite well, thank you. But confession before God exposed the shallowness of my beating myself up. It wasn’t only words and attitude towards others, but towards God that I needed to hear, to face, to confess—most often in my heart, the words not actually forming on my lips. But it was confession nevertheless. I could never tire of hearing that my sins were forgiven for Jesus’ sake.

For me some Sundays I couldn’t sing the hymn of praise (“This is the feast…”). But inwardly I liked being around people who could. The creeds brought me reassurance that not even this congregation was my world; they drew me into the “cloud of witnesses” throughout the ages. The Lord’s Supper likewise reaffirmed the eternity of this reality, being in God’s presence, receiving His gifts. Once again the body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

The beauty of family, close friends, and worship comes together to bring about God’s work of pulling a person through even the deepest valleys.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. (2 Cor. 1:3-7)

Ten times “comfort” is used in the passage. Speaks volumes, doesn’t it? And now God has given me the grace and comfort to embrace other porcupines… Been there, done that, and yes, porcupines can be loved. And God wins!