Weeping in the Silence: Depression and the Church

So. The news about Robin Williams.

How to respond to this? Williams was, by any measure, hugely successful. From the outside, his suicide is incomprehensible, and that’s when the comments start: he was selfish. He was stupid. Depressed? He should have cheered up (after all, he had lots of money and a shelf full of Oscars). And, for some reason, we think everyone needs to hear this opinion in blogs, on social media, in conversation.

Is this really the best response?

Job, in the midst of his suffering, met with three friends, and while their sermons and philosophies are ultimately empty, the greatest thing they do is sit with him, to be present even in silence. They show up and shut up and that’s the wisest thing they do in the whole book.

And then Jesus, arriving at the tomb of his friend, just bursts into tears. And yes, we know he raises Lazarus from the dead, but let’s pause here for a while, in this moment of empathy and grief, because incarnation is at it’s most powerful in times of vulnerability and pain.

That’s why, sometimes, the most pastoral thing you can do is shut up; shut up and listen and not try to give answers or explanations or facile attempts at a quick fix. And then you can weep, weep because the person in front of you is struggling under a crushing weight, struggling to fight through the fog, struggling to imagine a future. Now is not the time for a sermon on joy, now is not the time to talk about counting blessings or healing through faith. Now is the time to sit quietly amid the ashes; now is the time to weep with those who weep.

Mental health is surrounded by stigma, and if that’s something that compounded by our churches then our spaces need to become safer. We need to signpost to effective support, sure, but we also need to end a culture of silent condemnation that leaves those suffering from mental illness isolated and with nowhere to turn.

Too often Christian culture is focused on being right, or on being visibly successful, and when these things become paramount, we lose our distinctiveness and our ability to truly help those who sit next to us in our congregations. Amid the sermons and the rockin’ worship needs to be a place where people can be honest and vulnerable, a place where walls can be broken down. The older I get, the more I become convinced that this is the truest expression of church, a place where healing can begin with honesty and where the love of Christ is more concrete than abstract. A place that works with the Holy Spirit rather than getting in His way.

What happened to Robin Williams is a heartbreaking tragedy that’s given an opportunity to confront how we treat those with mental illness and how we either create or contribute an atmosphere that further isolates those living with depression. It’s a moment to be seized for the sake of our brothers and sisters: we can’t afford to let it pass by.

Walking on Water Again (Mark 6:47-50; Job 9:8-11))

20120717-073737.jpgBit of a quick one today, because I’ve blogged about Jesus walking on water before. I don’t have a lot more to add, except for a possible reference that made me go hmm…

See, the miracle narratives are there to show us who Jesus really is, and so they often contain references to the Old Testament (like, for instance, the calming of the storm); effectively they’re telling us that Jesus is God.

That’s what walking on water is all about – sure, it’s an easy way to get from A to B, but it doesn’t end there. Maybe this is most clearly seen in Mark’s telling of the story.

Job 9 tells us how God’s power sets him apart from the created order:

“He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. He is the maker of the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted. When he passes me, me I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.”

It’s the last line that jumped out at me; God’s power makes him unfathomable, unknowable. Job’s picture of God isn’t a force of nature, he’s the power behind nature itself. Walking on water is an expression of this power.

So the passage from Mark reminds us that Jesus has divine power. Fair enough, but maybe it goes deeper than that. Because Mark makes a quick, almost throwaway reference to Jesus being about to walk past the boat.

(Stop me if I’m reading too much into things.)

See, Job describes God walking on water and not being seen or perceived when he passes by.

Mark talks about Jesus walking on water and making himself known.

God goes from being unknowable in his power to being present, approachable. He gets in the boat with us and walks alongside us. It’s the miracle of the incarnation in a nutshell and an evolution in the way we relate to God. And it would be typical of Mark, who often makes tiny references that nevertheless open up new avenues of interpretation.

As always your thoughts are appreciated!

Star Gazing (Job 38:31-33; Amos 5:8)

In the night sky, just to the west, are two bright stars, dazzling and dominant, unmissable despite street lights and rooftops. For days I’ve half-wondered what their story is – their names, what we know about them… For the first time in months the night sky caught my attention, demanded I put some effort into it.

It turns out those stars aren’t stars. They’re Jupiter and Venus, which amazed me – I’m smart enough to know that Venus was bright, but not smart enough to realise that, not only is it really bright, but you can see it from my house.

In the process of finding out that I know next to nothing about astronomy, I stumbled across something that makes my scientific ignorance relevant to this blog. See, to navigate the night sky you need a starting point, and the only constellation I can immediately recognise is Orion. Punch that into a couple of astronomy-for-beginners sites and I found other things to look for – the moon, yes (I could manage that one), but also other constellations, like the Pleiades and…

Wait a minute, the Pleiades? Sure, I’ve heard of them in connection with astronomy, but aren’t they mentioned elsewhere? Two places actually – in a Red Hot Chilli Peppers song and in the Bible. Job 38 to be exact.

So I checked this out. It’s part of a long section where Job, having gone through some nightmarish times, seeks an explanation from God, whereupon God lets rip and points out that Job and his friends don’t really know what they’re talking about. This leads into an extended section proclaiming God’s greatness, including the following:

“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?

This isn’t the only time these constellations get mentioned – they also turn up in Amos 5:8. And while the writers use the magnificence of the night sky, the wonders of the cosmos to emphasise the sheer greatness of God their creator, something much simpler jumped out at me.

I can see Orion, the Bear and the Pleiades from my house. I go outside onto my drive, fire up a star chart app, and all three of those constellations are right above me, shining down on where I live.

That’s not a huge revelation, I know – the stars have been there for countless millennia and the same night sky is visible to pretty much anyone in the Northern Hemisphere. I’m not being startlingly original here. But there’s something awe-inspiring in the fact that Amos and Job and a man shivering in Dudley because he went out on a cold night wearing just a t-shirt can look up and see the same constellations. I guess it gives me a shared experience with people who lived thousands of years ago, a common humanity with writers from a different country, different culture, a different world almost.

And as those constellations are used to point to the glory and the power and the immensity of God, then I can look at them and be reminded that, while they’ve been around for so, so long, while the light I’m seeing was actually emitted thousands of years ago and so I’m looking into the past, the God they speak of is eternal, his character unchanging. Amos saw Orion in 750BC, I saw it in 2012, but we both went outside our houses, looked up, and thought of the same God. That’s amazing.

And, more amazing still, the same God looks back, in all his power and majesty, and says that he loves us.