“The Reality of Darkness”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 6, 2015: Advent 2
Baruch 5:1-9,Philippians 1:1-11, Luke 1:67-69
It was about five years ago when I noticed something different about myself. It was the summer before my second year in seminary and I had spent the entire summer working in the seminary library, cataloging new books and organizing shelves before the start of the new school year. It was not the most exciting job I’ve ever had, but it was a good way to make a few bucks. There were not many people on campus since it was the summer, but I’m a bit of an introvert so that was not really a problem. I would get up each morning, have a little breakfast, then spend eight hours in the quiet library; around 5 I would go home, make dinner, watch some TV or read, then get to bed. I noticed that summer that I was having a hard time getting up in the morning, which was nothing really different, but it seemed to be harder than before. I also noticed that I was having a hard time getting interested in anything—books, TV shows, the course work ahead in the new school year. I shrugged it off as boredom; it was the summer, it was hot, not many people were around, and my job for those few months was nothing exciting.
At the beginning of September the seminary sprang back to life. All the wonderful people I had come to know my first year were back on campus and we spent the first few nights of the school year getting caught up with each other around some great beer from Princeton’s micro-brewery. All of us second year students were about to start church internships, the first opportunity we’d have to use our classroom knowledge in a tangible way. Some of us would be serving in small rural congregations, while others would be serving huge congregations in New York City. We were all a little nervous, but mostly anxious to stretch our legs as preachers, teachers, and ministers. The close-knit group of friends that I was a part of met every night for prayer and every Wednesday morning for Bible study. The thing that I valued most about my time in seminary was the community, the mutual support, and the intense love we had for each other and the Lord.
At this point, I was still having trouble getting up in the morning and I was still a little bored here and there, but I was up to my eyebrows in school work and loving every minute of it!
Before Thanksgiving that year I got a call from the seminary housing office that one of the seminary’s coveted apartments had become available and I was next on the waiting list. If you’ve ever lived in a dorm setting, with shared bathrooms and shared everything else, you know how life-changing it can be to get a place of your own. These apartments were one bedroom, with a full kitchen, and a large living area. They were set off campus a little in a quiet neighborhood, with Whole Foods and a movie theatre right down the street. It was liberating! I didn’t have to eat in the cafeteria any more; no more waiting for a washer and a dryer to be available; no more wearing flip-flops in the shower; and no more having to tell my upstairs neighbor to turn their music down. This apartment gave me my own space, a place to study and rest and cook, something consistent in my growing and changing life.
My life at this point could not have been any better. I was studying at one of the greatest schools in the world, surrounded by friends I had been waiting to meet my entire life, living in my own place, getting better and better every day at the calling God has placed on my life.
But then it happened; the day came when in spite of a busy schedule, and several alarms, I stayed in bed all day. I remember that day so well because it was the day that the something different about me reared its dark and ugly head. There was nothing that could get me going—no friends, no food, not even the pastor supervising my internship who had come to my apartment looking for me when I didn’t show up at the church. I stayed in bed all day, paralyzed and scared by how I was feeling.
The feeling, or fog, or darkness—whatever you want to call it—eventually passed and I got back to the routine of school and life. But it did not stay away for long. It seemed that the more I tried to act ‘normal,’ the more I tried to pretend that everything was OK, this thing would hop onto my back and ride around with me everywhere. I never brought it up in my prayer group, even though these people loved me and would have done anything to help me. I never discussed it during my internship, even though I know that pastor would have been compassionate. I certainly never talked about it with professors or advisors, even though they too were pastors. With each day that this thing held on, I become more afraid and more withdrawn from the world around me.
A year later, with this thing still holding on to me, I started my third year in seminary, which was by far the most difficult, and I don’t mean academically. It was at the start of this final year of seminary that I came to understand that the thing that had been riding my back for a year was what professionals call depression. I knew it was something that people had, but not me; I was studying at one of the greatest schools in the world, surrounded by friends I had been waiting to meet my entire life, living in my own place, getting better and better every day at the calling God has placed on my life. I knew that depression was a mental illness that other people suffered from, but not me; I have a good relationship with God, I worship regularly, I pray as often as I breath. It was particularly difficult to come to terms with because I was starting to interview with churches as their potential future pastor, and there was something seriously wrong with me…I felt broken and damaged. How can a broken and damaged person be a pastor? Who would want such a person?
I decided to talk to someone about it, a trusted mentor and spiritual advisor, and he turned out to be the last person I discussed this with for a long time. “Andrew, you need to pray more. Get on your knees and lay this thing before God and you will be healed.” “Andrew, you need to bathe yourself in Scripture; really get into God’s Word and you will find your way through.” “Andrew, you need to get right with God.” These were the things he said to me, and though today I can almost say them in jest, these words did nothing but push me back into the hole where I had hiding for so long. Looking back on that conversation now, I don’t blame this person. What they said to me was based in what Christians have been told for so long. My father-in-law sums up Christian thoughts on mental illness with this phrase: “Too blessed to be stressed.” Christians for so long have been taught and believe that we are too blessed to be stressed, so if you are stressed, you need to pray more, read your Bible more, get right with God. Never, in my whole life, had I prayed as much, read as much Scripture, or tried to deepen my relationship with God than when the darkness of my depression was all that I could see and handle.
The stigma of mental illness is no more powerful than when it is inflicted by the Church or communities of faith. Our faith teaches us of this big, powerful God who has everything in the palm of his hand. Our faith teaches us that this powerful God redeemed and made the world right in Jesus Christ. Our faith teaches us that the Holy Spirit is always inspiring and protecting and guiding. So when the church fails to recognize the reality of darkness, the very real presence of mental illness in the human family, it either explicitly or implicitly teaches it’s people that there is something wrong with them, that they are broken, that they are damaged. If God is so good and merciful, and you can’t get yourself out of bed in the morning or smile every moment, the problem isn’t God…it’s you. That’s the message I heard from the church in my most desperate time of need, and this is what so others many hear from us in their most desperate time of need. I understood why I had not talked about it with my friends or pastors or professors: I did not want to be seen as a partial person, as a broken person, because in the community of faith that is what I was.
It has been three years now since the start of my healing process. When I tell people my story, they always ask me what changed, what made a difference, how did you get out it? The first thing I say to them is that nothing changed, there is no difference, I did not get out of my depression: I found the best options for me and they help me to live with mental illness. You see, I’m pretty sure that there is no way out of mental illness; I’m pretty sure that there is no way to switch it on or off. What I am sure of, now all these years later, is that there are ways to live with mental illness, and with the help a medical professional, I have found those ways. In a very compassionate and faithful way, this doctor has helped to me to understand that I am a victim of a fluke in brain chemistry, a fluke that is more common than we might think. They have helped me to look at my health from many different directions: mental, physical, and spiritual. They have helped me to care for myself—mentally, physically, and spiritually—so that healing can take place. The process is not perfect, there are still days when I feel broken and damaged. But for more days than not, I feel and live as I think God intends.
The Bible does not really talk about mental illness and I think it is dangerous to try to read it into the Biblical narrative. However, the Bible does talk about darkness and light, and from the constant interplay and struggle between darkness and light in the Bible, there is hope for people who suffer from mental illness.
There is hope because God knows. When Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sings at the birth of his son, he proclaims the truth that God looks favorably on his people and has redeems them. During the worst days of my depression, loneliness creates in me a cavern that seemingly nothing can fill. The fact that God knows what we suffer, knows what we endure and struggle with, is a small comfort that not one of us is ever alone. Zechariah sings that God is a promise-keeper, one who will never break his covenant of mercy with us. Just as God was with our ancestors in faith through their journey, God is with us. There is hope because God knows that darkness is real for us, and God is near.
There is hope because in God’s plan for all things, darkness will always be overcome with light. Singing again, Zechariah says, “…the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Light was given to me by medical professionals who listened to my story and helped me to process my life with mental illness. Light was given to me by spiritual friends who offered their prayers and did not perpetuate stigmas. Light was given to me through my own personal prayers and worship, through taking better care of myself, mind and body. I believe that God’s light will shine whenever and wherever God wants, but I also believe that God wants us to be agents of it. I’ve had those agents in my life, and they have been the way that God saves me over and over.
There is hope because a better day is ahead, maybe not as we imagine or how we want or as quickly as we want, but there is a better day ahead. The God of our faith, the God who came among us first as a little baby, has promised us that in time all things will be made right—there will be a day when all the afflictions, and pain, and suffering of this life will cease to be. This is the God who spoke through Baruch and said, “Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look towards the east, and see your children gathered from west and east…rejoicing that God has remembered them.” This image is so potent because children were the hope of ancient people, and the children of Israel had been stripped away from them so many times. Without their children, they sat in darkness. God speaks great hope that the children will return, one day, and light will come to shine in the darkness. Light will come to shine in our darkness, too, A better day is ahead—God keeps promises.
I share my story today in the hope that someone here today will hear it and have hope that light will shine in their darkness. I share my story today in the hope that if you have been told that there is something wrong with you, that you are broken or damaged, that you will hear the truth that there is nothing wrong with you, you are not broken or damaged—you are created in the perfect image of God. I share my story today in the hope that if you have been too scared to talk about your personal struggle or too scared to seek help, that you will now have courage to talk and find help and experience healing. I share my story today because the silence must be broken; faith is not about having a perfect life, it is about following the One who had a perfect life; faith does not make us immune to suffering, it promises in our suffering that God is close by; faith is not some special recipe for an easy life, it is a way of life meant for community so that we can support and help and guide and share God’s light with each other.
I share my story today because I’m one of the lucky ones who has survived this, and maybe someone here will hear my story and decide to live another day. I share my story today to share my hope and my light.
My friends, though the darkness is real, the light of God will always triumph. As you go from this place today, remember that your faith calls you to be God’s light in everything you say and do. Remember that at each moment, you have the opportunity and calling to be light to the world, a bright beacon to someone who may be sitting in deep darkness. Remember that you are loved and deeply valued, by this community, and by the Lord. Remember that there is hope and there is healing. Finally, remember that Christ is coming and he will scatter the darkness, our’s and the world’s. Amen.