Monday, December 03, 2007

Sermon: "The Spiritual Dimensions of Depression" (Delivered 12-2-07)

Intro. to the Sermon

Our guitar player, Tom K., helped me to work up a song we’d like to share with you this morning. The song is called “No Depression in Heaven” and the version of it I’m familiar with was recorded by the band Uncle Tupelo from Belleville, Illinois, a few miles from where Tom grew up. The song has also been recorded by Sheryl Crow. But the first group to do this song was the Carter Family in 1936. I’d like for you to imagine that it is 1936. The Great Depression had knocked the American economy off its tracks. Here in Kansas, the Dust Bowl cost people their livelihoods and their lives. Wishing for something better, people might have found strength in singing a song like this:
Fear the hearts of men are failing
These our latter days we know
The great depression now is spreading
God's word declared it would be so

I'm going where there's no depression
To a better land that's free from care
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home's in heaven
I'm going there.

In this dark hour, midnight nearing
The tribulation time will come
The storms will hurl the midnight fear
And sweep lost millions to their doom

I'm going where there's no depression
To a better land that's free from care
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble
My home's in heaven
I'm going there


“I’m going where there’s no depression / to another land that’s free from care / I’ll leave this world of toil and trouble. / My home’s in heaven. I’m going there.”
The lyrics seem to tell us to give up hope in this world; our reward will come in heaven. They tell us to accept our suffering and sadness in this world; they’re only transient and temporal. There is no depression in heaven. Needless to say, this is NOT the message I am going to deliver this morning.

While we may reject the other-worldly escapism of this song, we can embrace the defiance in these lyrics. Whether we consider the word “depression” to be a nod to a mental health condition or to the state of the economy in 1930’s America, we can find in the lyrics the empowering and decidedly bold statement: the present reality is not my destiny. I am not stuck here. My home is not here. There is somewhere, somewhere, where there is no depression and I will get there. I know I will get there. I know I will.

Each year on the first Sunday in December I preach about a different spiritual affliction, one that many of us may tend to face. The timing of these sermons is intentional. With the likelihood of added strain and anxiety around the Holiday season, added expectations, stressful family dynamics, financial woes, and so on, this is a time when spiritual afflictions tend to surface.

Two years ago this week I preached on Loneliness. (This wasn’t the easiest sermon I’ve ever preached considering the dating relationship I was in at the time had come to its official end exactly twelve hours before I was due to step into the pulpit and speak words of comfort to those who suffer from loneliness.)

Last year I preached about Anger. I had recently begun my discipline of Friday sermon writing at the coffee-shop I frequent. I remember sitting there with my lap-top and a book Peggy K. had loaned me called the Anger Management Workbook. The title of book was written in large, bold, angry red letters. Nobody sat next to me. People glanced at me warily.

And this year, sitting in the coffee-shop with books carrying titles like Struggling with Depression I got an equal number of uncomfortable looks. At first, I would turn over the book to hide the title, but by the end of my preparation and studies, I placed the books face-up for all to see.

A few preliminary remarks: I am a minister, not a psychologist and not a medical doctor. So, in this sermon about a psychological disorder and medical disease, I am going to try to discipline myself to stay in the role of minister and consider the spiritual dimensions of depression. Which is not to diminish the importance of psychological and psychiatric medicine – I am not Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch and shouting that psychology is a fraud – but I’m going to try to speak from my area of specialized knowledge. I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one in the pulpit.

That said, there are a few things I learned during my preparation. The first is that depression is tremendously wide-spread. It is estimated that at any given time, ten percent of the population wrestles with some form of depression. That means that if there are nine people in your life who are important to you, chances are good that one of you struggles with depression. A friend of mine in medical school who studies at the same coffee-shop where I write my sermons told me that they were taught that 70% of all people will experience clinical depression during their lifetime.

Another thing to remember is that not all depressions are equal. Claudia Strauss distinguishes between what she calls Depression with a capital “D” and depression with a lower-case “d.” The best analogy can probably be found in the language of 12-step programs where they talk about “low bottoms” and “high bottoms.” A “high bottom” is someone who is an addict but manages to hold down their job, remain stable in their relationships, stay free of legal trouble, and so on. “Low bottoms” tend to lose their jobs, wreck their relationships, and winds up on the streets or in jail. Similarly, some who live with depression are high functioning. They succeed in school and in their careers; some even excel. They maintain relationships. For others depression causes everything to fall apart. I do not mean to dismiss the actual struggles of those who function at a high level with depression. One of the books I read was the memoir of a successful psychotherapist who chronicles her descent into and recovery from a deep, deep depression. When she first goes to see a therapist she says, “But I’ve felt like this all my life and I’ve gotten along okay.” “All that means,” her therapist answers, “is that you have a high tolerance for pain and a lot of determination.”

I also was reminded that while mental illness has become better understood, and while the stigma is diminishing, mental illness is still stigmatized. Consider my initial impulse to cover up the books. Consider the worried, anxious glances I received after I decided to display them. In the interest of honesty, I have no shame in letting you know that from time to time I have seen counselors and therapists. I’ve also taken anti-depressants. In my thinking, you join a gym to improve and preserve your physical well-being. You turn to mental health professionals to improve and preserve your emotional and psychological health.

One final piece of learning from my study and preparation: We would never look at a person in a wheelchair or on crutches and say, “You could get up and walk if you really wanted to.” We’d never say to someone with Alzheimer’s, “You’d remember my name if you just tried harder.” But, with depression sometimes we do fall into the false idea that if the person just bucked up, just tried a little harder, just had some willpower, they’d be OK. Why do we slip into assuming that this illness can be treated with will-power when we wouldn’t tell somebody with a broken leg to “walk it off”? Martha Manning says that we easily fall into taking a “moralistic view of depression as a personal weakness and a condition under one’s own control.” We should see it a different way. Those afflicted with depression, whether they function at a high level or not, are heroic. To simply live requires courage. If you are without hope, if you see your life through gray-tinted glasses, if joy and satisfaction are always elusive, then to keep living and fighting is a testament to strength and bravery.

Let me work something out right here. So, I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one in the pulpit. As a minister my call is to speak to the spiritual dimensions, the soul dimensions, of issues. So, the sermon reaches an impasse here. If I compartmentalize my thinking, what does theology have to say to medical science? It is like saying that there is a religious meaning to Tommy John surgery, the reconstruction of the ulna collateral ligament in a person’s elbow. (Unless of course it is a baseball player for the Yankees getting the surgery, in which case, clearly, God has acted with righteous judgment.)

But, what if I don’t compartmentalize my thinking? What if we say that spirituality, prayer, faith, meditation, and theology DO speak to depression? There is some danger in going down this road. I don’t believe prayer or faith is a sufficient treatment for depression. But, allow me to say that faith and medicine can at least be in conversation with each other.

At a basic level, religion can be in conversation with depression in the form of religious community. In the book Traveling Mercies author Anne Lamott describes finding a church when she was in the depths of sadness and despair. She talks about how, at first, she just slipped in to hear the congregation sing hymns at the very end of the service, and how she just sat in the very back row and cried through them. As she began to make connections in the community she describes it in these terms: “I came to this church at the end of my rope. The members of this church tied a knot in the rope for me to hang on to.”

One of the books on depression that I read explains that depression involves neural pathways being fixed in such a way that negative feelings and negative thoughts repeat constantly. The book suggests that depression can be improved by doing things that interrupt these neural pathways. This can be something as simple as changing the colors of your wardrobe, adding a plant to a room, rearranging the furniture, or taking an alternate route to work. Five minutes jumping on a trampoline or five minutes on a swing can flood your brain with feel-good chemicals. Laughing or singing or listening to music can stimulate your brain chemistry. In church community we can make relationships with others who can break us out of our fixed patterns. We can sing and laugh and listen to music that pumps up our brain chemistry.

While I cannot underestimate the worth of community and the effects it has on stimulating positive mental health, it is far from the only thing about religion and spirituality that can be in conversation with depression. I have a friend who has a relative who believes in a more conventional Christian theology. This relative suffers from severe depression and entertains thoughts of suicide. At times he has said that the only thing that keeps him from taking his own life is his belief that God would be angry with him if he acted on the impulse. His relief is not found in escapist ideas of heaven. God, he believes, wants him to live. In our church, I suspect few of us would articulate this the same way as he does. But I think we can speak of having a holy purpose and a sacred calling. In this church we talk about our mission to invite everyone into caring community, to grow spiritually, and to become involved in working for a peaceful, fair and free world. For us, it is not so much about avoiding the chastisement of a divine parental figure. For us, it is realizing at a profound and essential level that our lives are not just our own. I am a part of something bigger than I am and you are a part of something bigger than you are. Your life does not only belong to you. You are a part of something greater. The world has need of you.

And there is more. There is more than the importance of church community as an instrument for our further wholeness. There is more than the mission of our Unitarian Universalist faith that calls us to live lives of meaning and service, and that tells us that we are a part of an interdependent web where that space in the web that we occupy is important and that we should bless the entire web of life through our living.

There is more. I cannot end this sermon without saying something about creativity. One web-site I visited listed people who suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. The list included Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. They all suffered from some form of depression or bipolar disorder. The same can be said of any number of contemporary artists, like Kurt Cobain. Of contemporary depression sufferers, I think in particular of Elliot Smith, one of the most beautiful songwriters of the last two decades.

These lives may be described in terms of beauty and in terms of tragedy. What beauty and what waste of life! What beauty and what waste! A couple months back I picked up a biography of Elliot Smith, a songwriter from Portland, Oregon. The biography was written by Ben Nugent who lived in the dorm across from mine in college. Whenever I play an Elliot Smith record, I am simultaneously thankful and angry: thankful for the gift of his beautiful music, angry that he took his own life in 2003 and isn’t still making beautiful music. What beauty and what waste!

But creativity and inventiveness are not the sole possessions of depressed artists. Far from it. I believe that the holy is found in nature; the holy is found in relationship; the holy is found in justice work; and that the holy is found in creativity. Our faith helps us to experience awe, to sense the holy that is all around us in nature and relationship and justice and creativity.

What I have found in my experience with depression, in my experience with those who suffer from depression, in my research, in my intuition, and in my heart is that depression keeps people from being able to recognize and fully sense the holy. And so, while religion and spirituality are no substitute for counseling and therapy and medication, that practice of being able to name and recognize what is holy may be a way of resisting depression.

I began the sermon by living out a small dream of singing. I don’t claim any skill or ability in that act. But it was joy to collaborate with Tom K. And it was joy to sing. And I suspect some of you will find joy in teasing me about my singing. Even simple joys can be sources of hope and resilience!

In this season of advent, may absence turn to presence. May despair turn to hope. May indifference turn to joy. May all those who suffer from depression, directly or indirectly, be especially held in community, encouraged by a sense of purpose, and surrounded by an awareness of the holy that always, always pervades our living.


If you are feeling depressed, may you go forth in the knowledge that this does not have to be your destiny. May you come fully to know the treasures of religious community. May you know that your life has purpose and that the world has need of you. And, may you grow in awareness of the holy, responding to it with joy, a joy to receive as well as to give.

Bibliography and Acknowledgments

Peggy K. loaned me two important books I read for this sermon: Talking to Depression: Simple Ways to Connect when Someone in Your Life Is Depressed by Claudia Strauss and Undercurrents: A Life Between the Surface by Martha Manning. In addition, Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies (like all her other writings) contains significant insight about the intersection between mental illness and spirituality.

Tom K. & Peggy K. each contributed in many ways to make this sermon what it was. The worship committee encouraged me to explore this topic. Dan D. began the worship service by reading the opening words with his wonderful voice. Jan L. and Ruth S. moved us during the service by playing a beautiful flute/piano duet. Allen G. took the time to share his wisdom. Sarah P. talked with me as I wrote the sermon, giving me the medical school take on the subject and otherwise sharing her wisdom. Finally, thank you to everyone who trusts me to be their minister. I always, always learn from you.