That was then. This is now.

Why we must accept change in our lives.

Ray, Beulah, and Ree as a baby
My mother as a baby with her father and birth mother.

My mother was a remarkable woman. Her mother died of cancer when my mom was six and her only sister, Ruth, was three. She had three stepmothers, two of whom also died while she was still at home. No one spoke to her about her losses as was the pattern of that generation. My grandfather was a wonderful man, but times were different then and he was dealing with his own grief. My mother was launched into adulthood, a naïve young girl without even the slightest idea of what caused pregnancy. A gifted pianist and devout Christian, she went to Anderson College[1]) with a strong faith in God and hope for the future

CW & Ree separate college photos finished
Mom and Dad in college

There she met my father, Clair Shultz. He was the youngest of seven children in a family hit hard by the depression. Inventive and mischievous, he went to college because a Sunday school teacher saw his potential and talked him into it. Mom fell for his pranks, like putting firecrackers under her dorm room door, and they were married in 1935 on a Christmas Day when it was four below zero.

Their ministerial career began with the pastorate of a small church in Noblesville, Indiana. Two short-term Minnesota pastorates followed, after which they decided to apply for missionary service in Trinidad, British West Indies (where I was raised). Later assignments included some time in Jamaica and then in Kenya, East Africa. They learned Swahili in their 50s.

Change everywhere.

I never realized until just before my father’s death that Mom was the strong one in the family. She endured tropical storms, tarantulas on the front porch, rats the size of housecats in the kitchen, and the near-death of her infant son with whooping cough. She taught Sunday school with flannel graphs, did the mission bookkeeping, and helped start a Bible training school. She also managed the onslaught of change that characterized the rest of her life. One of her biggest challenges was when my sister and I, each at the age of thirteen, were sent back to the States to go to school.

In every place she lived, she had to change. She changed families (thinking of young missionaries as her kids), cultures, and devastating accidents. She traveled around the world more than once, documenting her travels in aerograms written in her delicate hand on airplanes and from distant hotels.

Mom Shultz for obituary
Mom five years before she died

Her biggest adjustments came after she and Dad retired. She was diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis, a disease which gradually robbed her of mobility: first a cane, then a walker, and finally a wheelchair for more than twenty years. We watched her and Dad downsize from a three-bedroom home (filled with shells from Barbados and zebra skin rugs from Africa) into a two bedroom condo (with spacious bedrooms), and then into an apartment in an assisted living facility. Always she went to something smaller, something less. She gave away her favorite Blue Danube dishes, her bronze flatware from Thailand, and her Chinese buffet. When Dad died at 93 (she was 92) she downsized into an efficiency and finally, no longer able to manage on her own, into skilled care; first a private room and then a double. She gave up e-mail—her lifeline to others—and her checkbook. We watched her gradual devolvement and sometimes joked about her unwillingness to relinquish a final bookshelf of Bibles and well-worn favorites. Pneumonia precipitated her move to skilled care. Now totally cared for by others, her life had shrunk from the entire world to a hospital bed. Gradually dementia shuttered even that world. She died in 2011 at the age of 97.

That was then. This is now

I first heard the phrase, “That was then. This is now,” when they started downsizing. More and more frequently she said the words as if to remind herself that change is inevitable and fighting it is pointless. One of her caregivers, who also was a close friend, marveled frequently that Mom never complained about her disease or her losses. When we asked her about missing Dad, she would say, “That was then. This is now.” To a woman who years before had sacrificed her children to serve the Lord, the scriptural pattern had become her bucket list. “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-21). I see these words as one of my mother’s greatest legacies to me.

We spend so much time resisting change and complaining about circumstances. We gripe about the neighbors who never mow their lawn and we worry about the solvency of Social Security. We desperately hope that cancer won’t knock on our door and that no one in our family will die too soon. We’re sad to think that the children will grow up, spread their wings and fly away, and then complain when they move back home. Living out my days in a nursing home with overworked nurses and hallways that smell like urine is one of my biggest fears is. I think many have that fear.

If truth be told, we cannot do much about most of these things. But a life lived in fear is no life worth living and I think we underestimate our resiliency and inner resources to adapt to change. The human race has endured the unspeakable in wars and concentration camps. Foreclosures have left us homeless, wars have left us childless, and disease and accidents have left us with lifelong pain. History teaches us, if we will pay attention, that even with such loss and pain people rise above and beyond to find meaning and make a difference. I want to be one of these people.

Things to Remember

  • Enjoy the life you have.

With all of the loss and pain you may have endured, there are good things to celebrate. Try to think about what you have instead of what you don’t have. Thank God for your body, even if it is disabled or ravaged by disease. It’s the only one you have and you need to make peace with it. I’m not saying that life is easy or that you can think positively and change circumstances. Life is hard. But you are a survivor. That was then. This is now.

  • Don’t play the “If only” game.

Many spend their lives wishing things were different. “If only I had married differently.” “If only my daughter had not been in the car with the drunken driver.” “If only…” we can do this for years and it changes nothing. We must grieve our pain—with help, if necessary—but we eventually can make peace with our past. That was then. This is now.

  • Find a creative outlet.

God made you to create. He is The Creator and has made you in His image. Creating things, whether writing a poem or rebuilding a car, is extremely healing. I have written about depression in another blog, and I will be writing about living with pain in another. What I know is that deciding to begin blogging has changed my perspective remarkably. It has given me a place to process my past and to gain perspective from all those gracious enough to respond. What creative things can you do?

  • Reestablish your faith.

Downsize your wants and stop accumulating. Beauty fades. Riches are fleeting. Anchor your life to what no one can take away. Reach out for God and you will find him. How wealthy is that person who invests in eternity!

C. S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Bingo. It is my contention that the Bible offers the best future for any of us. Those who cast their lot in with Jesus Christ are assured of life forever with him, above and beyond pain, sickness, and death. And it gives me great joy to think of Mom is heaven, lifting her coffee cup in a toast and saying, “That was then. This is now!”

[1] Now Anderson University http://www.anderson.edu/

Learning to Live without All the Answers

girl-backpack-thinking-sunset-field-fence-moment-field-reeds-hd-fullscreen 2Learning to Live without All the Answers

 I was a young pastor officiating at a funeral for an elderly man I didn’t know. I had met his wife of fifty-plus years once at the baptism of her granddaughter. Although a church member elsewhere, she asked me to do the service and her family pressed me to do so. I agreed.

I had performed maybe three funerals and was inexperienced with people, dying, and grief. At the viewing before the service the widow collapsed onto the open casket and began wailing. Her shrieking made everyone uncomfortable, especially me. I stood nearby without the least idea of who should do something and fearing I was the one. Family members hugged her and encouraged her to move on, but the ear-splitting howling continued unabated. Then I heard the dreaded words, “Where is the pastor?” as unfamiliar people looked around, no one imagining that the timid twenty-something in the corner was a clergyman.

You know, I don’t even remember what happened. Later the emotionally spent widow with streaking mascara reached for my hand and said, “Why, Pastor, why? He was a good man. How could God do this to me? I stammered something inane and looked for an exit. Somehow we got through the service and I went home, sobered and wondering what I had gotten myself into.

I think what baffled me was being the answer man with no answer. Why did her husband die? He was suddenly gone leaving a gaping hole in her life. I hadn’t been to seminary yet, but even when I went I don’t remember any classes on dealing with hysterical people. Or any kind of people. Too bad.

Why do we use clichés?

It’s at times like these, when we don’t know what else to say, that Christians blurt out those clichés that help no one: “God has a reason,” for example. Or when a child has died, somebody says the inevitable and embarrassing “God needed another angel.” Nowhere in the Bible are we told that God kidnaps children to make angels. We are quick to quote this well-intentioned but inaccurate bomb: “The Lord never gives you more than you can handle.” We might even share this non-biblical quote by Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” with “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”

So why do we use clichés? Christian Piatt, a minister in Portland, Oregon, writes about this. “Christians hate loose ends. We want to end every conversation with everyone smiling and assured that everything will be just fine. But that’s not always reality, and sometimes, what people need is to grieve, wrestle or reflect rather than feel better and move on. Being a Christian is not about having all the answers at the ready.”[1]

Just like I felt I had to do something at the funeral with the distressed widow, we find ourselves ill equipped at times of grief or trouble. Yet we feel we have to provide answers. Not knowing what else to say, we share those time worn phrases that help no one and sometimes aren’t even biblical.

Another discerning writer says we feel obligated to have an answer, but, “Sometimes there simply are no appropriate words, and we just need to listen.”[2] Over the years I am learning that silence more often than not is golden. People in crisis usually are not asking for answers. What they need is from us is presence. It’s okay to be silent, cry with someone, or simply hug them.

Developing a Mature Faith

When we are insecure in what we believe we are easily challenged by crisis. Unsure of what the Bible says, we exist on maxims and a cursory understanding of God and our faith. Such childish faith collapses quickly when difficulties come: tragedies like incurable illness, family breakup, or mental illness. And they will come to everyone.

Does God allow suffering? Yes. Why? We cannot know his reasons. Does He love us? Without question! Then what do I do with this seeming ambiguity? I must learn to live with it. I must consider the life experiences of those who suffer. I must faithfully study the Bible and learn how God interacted with people throughout history and also study how He interacts with me. Faith is not easy. Faith is not a formula: so much prayer equals so many blessings. We all must grapple with tough times so that our faith will grow strong enough to sustain us and our families.

The Upside of Failed Faith

I have shared in an earlier blog about my depression and its drastic effect in my life and my family’s life. One monumental trigger more than any other pulled the rug out from under me: I lost confidence in my Christian experience. Life events swerved me off the road and I crashed. You could say it this way: the maxims and clichés that were part of my faith—not all of my faith, mind you—were revealed as stunningly inadequate

Now, years later, I say that this was the best thing that ever happened to me. My dark night of the soul has helped me come to a healthier and more balanced understanding of God and faith. I will not quote this to someone in crisis but I do believe in the truth of Romans 8:28 “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” God does work in mysterious ways. After all, He is God and light years beyond any capacity on our part to understand Him. Yet He daily reveals Himself to me and reminds me that I—and you—are precious to Him and worth far more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:31).

[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christianpiatt/2012/07/ten-antidotes-to-christian-cliches

[2] Mary Fairchild @http://christianity.about.com/od/faithinaction/qt/Christian-Phrases.htm

Comfortable clothes. Comfortable people.

DS in sweats at piano cropped

Back in the 1980s my dad showed up for the family picnic in a striped blue shirt, plaid brown shorts, black socks, and dress shoes. Looking at him in mild horror, I whispered to my wife to please never let me dress like that. Just the other day I glanced in the mirror as I went forth to meet the day. I drew in my breath sharply. Plaid shorts, American flag T-shirt, black socks, and sandals! Oh no! What happened? I was not only more stooped like my Dad used to be, but somewhere in the last ten years I apparently had a stroke in the part of my brain that controls good taste in clothes.

When you’re young it never occurs to you that someday you’ll walk differently or visit a podiatrist (“What’s a podiatrist?” we said.) When your energy levels are surging and body responds without a hitch every time, you cannot imagine stumbling along or have trouble getting out of a chair. And, I suppose, you never think that someday you might develop different standards for life that place a low priority on many of the things you’ve admired your whole life.

The older I get the more I find myself wearing comfortable clothing. I used to buy fashionable shoes, often from Florsheim; now they hurt my feet and I wear tennis shoes and gardening clogs. I wear socks all of the time (because my feet are cold) and my farmer’s tan now stops at my ankles. Sweatshirts and sweatpants do well around the house in the winter. I used to dress in the current style; but have you noticed what’s in style these days? All the stores in the mall cater to young people and, even I could find something I liked, it would not fit my body that long ago lost the fight with gravity.

I value clothes that fit easily. I wear clothes a long time, until they wear out, actually. Why spend money on new clothes when you’re on a fixed income and you have plenty of things to wear (even if the garments you think of as new were purchased ten or more years ago)? Let me assure my children, lest they worry, that I will not go out in public in pajamas and slippers or wear clothes so old they advertise Eisenhower for president (“Ike, Ike, he’s our man!”). Nor will my photo appear on the web site, “People of Walmart.”

Here’s my point: aging brings us far more benefits than liabilities, even as we lose vision and mobility. It has taken me a long time to be comfortable inside the body I have, and I want to keep that perspective.

What other perspectives have come with age?

  1. We are more accepting.

Here’s an example: we’re a part of a wonderful church where we are totally welcome as we are. The 8:30 a.m. service is one in which we sing old hymns and I play the piano (something I haven’t done since I was in high school). Acceptance in this group has been immediate and unconditional. At our potlucks we commiserate about back surgeries and unashamedly bring pillows to sit on. We pray for each other’s children and never think about whether what someone is wearing is fashionable or not. We’ve been through the war, sat at deathbeds, and cried over wayward family members. We’re survivors who celebrate life together and rejoice in our wonderful God, who loves us.

  1. Experience provides a clearer perspective

When you’ve lived a long time you understand what is valuable and what is not.

  • Friends, for example, are important. Popularity is not.
  • Family, both by blood and by choice, are priceless.
  • We listen to news broadcasts differently. Jesus said we would hear of wars and rumors of wars, that famine would come as would times of plenty. The important thing is that we belong to God and it’s his world. We won’t get out of it alive, anyway, and when we leave this world, a better one is waiting.
  • We value people with integrity and have no use for pretense, showmanship, or politicians who create their belief systems based on public opinion polls.
  1. We recognize true heroes.

The media loves to give attention to those who “accomplish” things. But is it an accomplishment to reach my one hundredth birthday or is that a genetic hiccup? I’m happy for those who are still running marathons into their eighties, but most of us can’t achieve this and it falsely labels youthfulness as success. Recently ABC aired a nationally televised awards program in which someone who had recently undergone surgery to switch sexes was given a standing ovation for heroism. Please!

The elderly see through this utter nonsense. We may use wheelchairs and Depends, but we know that heroes are motivated by a love for people and respect for truth.

We have made peace with our past.

The perspective of years helps you separate and discard painful experiences because we know they do not define who we are. Only recently did my wife, Karon, help me see that I still clung to put-downs and thoughtless hurts in the past. I now realize that nursing that pain only hurts me and not the persons who did those things. I have chosen to lay aside my victim mentality and no longer focus on the pain of my past, my failures, or poor decisions. We are so much more than abuse, job loss, or bullying.

Forgiving everyone in your life, even those now dead, will bring you unimagined freedom and joy. In the New Testament, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone. Jesus answered in the vernacular of his day, “without number!”

I thank God for my past and everyone I’ve been privileged to meet. Some have brought me pain. Others have been uncommonly kind and generous. All have enriched me and helped to shape me as I am today. I thank God for his grace that forgives me and his endless love and optimism that ceaselessly encourage me day after day. Not everyone will like me, marvelous as I am. Life’s experiences continue to stretch me and build my faith. And tomorrow will be a wonderful day!

Mating Rattlesnakes? Really?!

It was early morning. Brewing coffee smelled like breakfast. The dogs were fed and settled into their morning rag doll poses. I stumbled outside with bleary eyes to fill the bird feeder, retrieved it from the hook under the big mesquite tree, and stopped to look at the sky. Another beautiful day. But that’s Arizona.

As I leaned over the faded blue plastic tub in which I store the seed, I stopped. Something wasn’t right. I rubbed my eyes and focused. Yes. Right behind the seed tub: a huge rattler coiled and lying quietly. Suddenly its abrasive rattle sounded the alarm. I backed away very quietly and hurried inside. Adrenaline was surging wildly through my now wide-awake body. My wife looked up as I entered the bedroom. She was a picture of peace with our dog, Molly, on her lap. “Rattler!” I blurted. “A big one!” No more peace.

I retrieved the gun and checked for snake shot. (If anyone knows where you can buy snake shot for a revolver, let me know. It seems that no one is selling it any more.) Cautiously approaching the snake, which was now in the strike position and swaying, it again flicked its tail a few times to warn me. I stopped and stared. Is that two rattles? Must be a mutant with two tails! It sure is a big one. I realized I would have to pull out the bin to get a good shot. Thankfully the snake remained where it was, ready to strike. I stared again! Two snakes together! Yikes!

Dead rattlers still connected
The male is belly up and therefore appears white. He was 43″ and the female 41″ long.

I aimed the gun and pulled the trigger. The first shot killed them both. Of course, I shot a second time just to be sure. When I pulled them out into the driveway to cut off their heads, I saw that they were mating! I guess I interrupted a little romantic moment. Too bad. So sad. I laughed now that the frightening moment was gone and wondered if they knew what hit them in their early morning ardor. Those rattlesnake babies be won’t seeing the light of day, thank you very much!

The sad end of a love affair gone wrong.

 Three years earlier I had encountered a single rattler in a similar encounter. It was my first experience with both my gun and a rattlesnake and I was shaky. It was behind a couch on the same porch and it took me three shots to kill it. I later had to do some extensive patching in the stucco where most of the shot had landed.

Altogether we’ve killed six rattlers on our nine-acre property. My son-in-law and his boys killed the first one. Such masterful butchers are they! The rattlers were babies, just as deadly.

Some people ask why we would live here where we must be so vigilant. “Well,” we say, looking at the Huachuca Mountains that fill the southern horizon with grandeur and ever-changing cloud formations, watching the hummingbirds dart from one red yucca bloom to another, and thinking of the ice-free winters we enjoy and the quiet and serenity that surround us and feed our souls, “Just crazy, I guess.”

Are You Good Enough?

.Seattle, 1958. Sunset Junior High School. Ninth grade gym class. Fresh from the West Indies and with a heavy British accent, I dragged myself to the locker room one more time for the usual embarrassment. I was 5’ 4’’ tall and weighed almost 170 pounds. My thick glasses helped me see but nothing had helped me understand American sports. My sister was sent away to school when I was seven, leaving me the only child of busy missionary parents who were always at their desks or their work. I played the piano, ate (some afternoons I consumed an entire can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk), and read. It was not only American sports that confused me. It was all sports. I had witnessed perhaps one basketball game, no football games, and not even a cricket match, which would have been more likely in Trinidad.

We suited up and filed into the gym. Our ruddy-faced PE teacher hauled in a large bag of balls and shouted, “Basketball this week, fellas!” All but one of the boys were excited and were soon shouting, joking, and shooting baskets. I, the foreigner, stood against the wall trying to make myself invisible. We lined up. Two of my classmates were named captains and chose their teams—I was always last—and the game began. Of course, everyone had his turn and my inevitable moment arrived. I had watched carefully to try to learn what to do. Suddenly someone threw me the ball. By this time I had figured out that I should get the ball and shoot a basket, and so I shoved the ball under my arm and ran to the end of the court. The coach’s whistle shrilled and everybody stared. “Schlitz!” (He never got my name right.) “Don’t you know you are supposed to dribble the ball?!“ Dribble? My face crimsoned to uproarious, hooting laughter.

A Childhood Experience Grows into Dysfunction.

By my senior year things were much better. I was losing the accent and understood most idioms of American life. But the feeling of not being good enough was still lodged in my mind. Years later and in my forties with a beautiful wife and three great kids, the feeling roared back. It had nothing to do with sports now. It was my Christian faith that was the bugaboo. By this time I had a graduate degree from seminary and had been both a pastor and associate pastor in several congregations. I was supposed to have the answers, to understand theology, how prayer works, and just what to say to the parents of the dying child in the emergency room. But I didn’t have all of the answers. Some days I wondered if I had any answers.

My flawed theology led me to label some vocations as more valuable than others. To my way of thinking, missionaries were number one and pastors were number two. Others were three or lower. I’m sure my parents made mistakes but they never shared them with me. Ours was a proud denomination certain of ourselves and our right doctrine. Everything was right or wrong. No minister or pastor that I knew ever slipped up. In fact, Every Christian was supposed to be perfect and live above sin, period. We were a well-intentioned but graceless group who defined ourselves by the things we didn’t do. We didn’t drink. We didn’t smoke. We didn’t dance. We didn’t play cards. We didn’t swear. We didn’t go to movies. You get the picture. When Christians we knew did these things, they were labeled a failure.

And now I didn’t have the answers. I struggled at times with temptation. For the first time I recognized my deep-seated anger against my parents for sending me away to school and against the denomination that sent them to the mission field. I was trapped. I was angry and Christians don’t get angry. I doubted my beliefs and Christians should have strong faith. I could no longer do the job and had never been taught it was okay to fail. I felt that I was not good enough. Especially was I not good enough to be a pastor, and way below my falsely created pedestal of missionary perfection. And so I left pastoral ministry.

When we’re not good enough.

So what happens in this environment? People pretend. We hide. We hide our true selves and display what everyone thinks we should be. People do this everywhere. We pretend we’re someone else (posting flattering photos on Facebook or dating web sites). We adopt an attitude of superiority to hide our feeling of inferiority (swaggering around in front of our friends to impress them). This is usually an unconscious response to not feeling good enough. In today’s mean-spirited society, we are particularly susceptible to bullying. We’ve all read the tragic accounts of teenagers who have killed themselves because of being labeled as losers. Our culture praises beautiful bodies and the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Who can compete? The Business world demands being super productive and twelve-hour days. It’s no wonder so many of us feel inadequate, marginalized, and useless. “I’m not good enough” becomes a lifelong personality disorder that torpedoes relationships and fractures marriages and families. It leads to depression—and even suicide.

What now?

  1. Examine your negative self-image. Where does it come from? Peers and parents are two powerful forces and either or both can make you feel wonderful or horrible. Who is telling you that you are not good enough? Is it you or someone else? If it’s you, why do you feel inadequate? What event, experience, or relationship is fueling your pain?
  2. Ask a trusted friend about your perceptions. How do they understand the triggers that launch your self-doubt? What good things do they see in you? What do they believe about you?
  3. Are you transparent? Are you real or do you put up a front that you imagine others want you to be? No one can live a lie. It’s okay to be who you really are. Jettison friends who require you to pretend.
  4. Failure is temporary. Life is a learning process and you are very resilient. Thousands of people we think of as big successes failed countless times in the pursuit of their vision. It’s okay to fail. How you respond to failure is a key to succeeding in life.
  5. Failure is not a sin. Everyone fails at some point. It’s the nature of life. Only God is perfect but He is also gracious, understanding, and loving.
  6. Comparison is corrosive. Comparing yourself to others breeds dissatisfaction, jealousy, envy, and depression. In truth, we often don’t even know the people to whom we compare ourselves!
  7. God has made you a marvelous and creative person. You are created in His image. He loves you as you are. He gave up Heaven to walk this earth in human form to teach us that He understands. He died for your sins and, if you accept him, He will live in you now and give you Heaven forever.

Epilogue

By God’s grace, my story did not end with my departure from pastoral ministry. In the months and years that followed, God revealed Himself to me with remarkable and uplifting encouragement. He immediately gave me three scriptures verses which extinguished my burning sense of ministerial failure.

  • The first was from Mark 1:11, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” I foolishly reacted with some statement about this verse being for Jesus. God said, “It is my Word and today it is about you.”
  • The second was from Haggai 2:23: “I will make you like a signet ring on my finger, says theLord, for I have chosen you.”
  • The third was from Luke 22:31-32 “Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat.But I have pleaded in prayer for you, [David] that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.”

I have learned that God was neither surprised nor disappointed by my struggle. It made no difference to Him that I felt that I had failed. He didn’t mind that I was angry at the church or wanted nothing to do with further ministry. Nothing I was feeling disqualified me in His eyes from His original call upon my life to be his boy.

The grace that I was never taught but experienced from gracious people like my adopted parents, L. T.  and Helen Flynt, my parents-in-law, John and Florence Neal and, of course, my wife and children, has become a permanent and healing part of my life. They from the beginning have loved me as I am and their love is unconditional and forever. Thank you!

God graciously used me in other ministry positions, including two wonderful pastorates and now in retirement. He continues to heal me from my need to be perfect and reminds me not to compare myself with others.

I pray that you, too, will find His grace and peace.

The Devastation of Depression

depressed man  It was 2002 and the first Monday of our keenly anticipated summer vacation when I noticed sudden, severe back pain. In less than a week I was in the ER, near death, and diagnosed with sepsis, double pneumonia, kidney failure, and bacterial meningitis. Four days later I woke up in ICU, beginning a long recovery with months of intravenous antibiotics and physical therapy. Miraculously, I survived, thanks to excellent medical treatment and praying friends.
In much the same way twelve years earlier depression blindsided me in the middle of a wonderful career as the pastor of a growing, exciting congregation. But whereas the meningitis is long gone with no after effects, the depression lingers after more than fifteen years of antidepressants, psychotherapy, and a loyal, loving, and incredibly patient wife. After a hiatus from pastoral ministry, I returned, but never regained my enthusiasm, joy, or energy. My wife tells me I have difficulty relating to anyone on an emotional level. It seems depression has permanently blunted my emotions and crippled intimacy on many levels.

Already an introvert, I only wanted to be alone. I avoided conflict and was (am still) unable to watch any movie or play with stressful relationships. People exhaust me and many days I could be happy staring at the horizon with only the dog for company. I can no longer serve on committees or take leadership.

How do I, a Christian, handle depression when all my life I was taught that prayer works and God heals? What caused this catastrophic emotional typhoon, the devastation of which keeps on robbing me and my family from the joyful companionship we long enjoyed?

Causes of Depression

 (Disclaimer: I am neither a medical professional nor a psychologist and only share what I am learning from reading, counseling, and personal experience.)

Actually, depression is a normal part of the ups and downs of life. For example, after a stressful tennis match, business meeting, or extremely busy event, the body goes into mild depression to help you recover. Too much stimulation causes adrenaline flow which, if left unchecked, can physically and emotionally damage you. But after a day off, a nap, or a vacation, you are recharged and ready to go.

Harmful depression is triggered by certain experiences that make you feel trapped. Depression builds when these stressful situations, relationships, or events occur so often or rapidly that there is no recovery time, creating a downward spiral of worsening depression which can become impossible to overcome. This downward spiral often builds over many years in which a person feels trapped by abuse, work, a bully, bad health, or family stress until suddenly your coping ability implodes and you collapse emotionally.

One counselor explained it to me this way. Suppose you are in a swimming pool and someone throws you a beach ball (stressful event) that you must hide. You hold it under the water with no problem. Then another beach ball comes. You hold it down. Then another, and another, and another, until…..you can’t hold them down (cope) any more. They shoot to the surface (you can no longer function). Depression becomes chronic when the chemical imbalance in your system caused by stress or your emotional triggers becomes permanent.

My depression developed both from experiences as a child of missionary parents and an obsessive compulsive nature that wanted to keep everyone happy. Pastoring a church places you in a wonderful place of being able to help, encourage, and guide people to a fulfilling, life-changing relationship with God. I loved that. What I did not know how to handle was conflict, disagreements, the stress of building facilities we no longer had money for, displeasing people with different theologies, and managing staff and volunteers with emotional needs I could not fathom. Added to this was a growing discovery of longstanding anger at my parents for sending me and my sister away to school while we were only children, resentment against those with impossible demands, and the fatal misunderstanding that a good Christian (and pastor!) should never be angry. Up came the beach balls and I was totally incapacitated.

Surviving Depression

When my depression slammed me to the mat, my congregation responded with grace, support, and love. They granted me a three-month leave and recommended seeing a counselor. Soon after I moved to a different career and began taking antidepressants, all which have been part of the survival process. In that time—and the many years since–I have begun to recognize the triggering events. I have read widely, counseled with some wonderful counselors, and asked my family to forgive me—a continuous process.

  • I am blessed to have an extremely supportive and loving family. They have stuck with me through thick and thin. Thank you, family!
  • Feedback from those who know you well and a good counselor will help you understand and recognize the triggers that set you off. Understanding your past and the causes of repressed anger is vital to coping as life continues. There are many excellent resources available and I have read many. Particularly helpful was the book Boundaries: When to say Yes, How to say No to take control of your life[1]. Personality tests, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Personality Inventory[2], were a revelation to me.
  • Antidepressants are a lifesaver. Do not hesitate to talk with your doctor about these. The stigma surrounding these has largely disappeared, but some people still feel that you should get over your depression and get off the medicine. Not true. If you have high blood pressure, your doctor will tell you the medicine is for life. It’s the same with antidepressants.
  • As a lifelong Christian, it has been crucial for me to understand God’s grace and to accept imperfection. Many Christians still play the tapes from their childhood or particular denomination that condemn failure of faith and shun those who don’t fit the mold.
  • It’s okay to be who I am, even if I’m depressed.
  • The world is still beautiful. God’s love and grace are sufficient. He loves me—and you—the way we are, not the way we’re “supposed to be.”
  • Life is still meaningful, even with depression, and I am learning to sing songs again. I call them Night Songs.

[1] Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, Zondervan, © Henry Cloud and John Townsend. See www.zondervan.com.

[2] See www.myersbriggs.org