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

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