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Christian Life: "Out of the Miry Bog": Dealing with Depression Part one of a three-part sermon series: "Coping as a Christian")
Text: Psalms 22:1-5
I've told you this story before, but it's such a good one, it deserves repeating. And it's the best story I know to introduce the sermon this morning.
It's the story of the business man whose wife was experiencing depression. She began to mope around and be sad, lifeless -- no light in her eyes -- no spring in her step -- joyless. It became so bad that this "man of the world" did what any sophisticated person would do. He made an appointment with the psychiatrist. On the appointed day, they went to the psychiatrist's office, sat down with him and began to talk. It wasn't long before the wise doctor realized what the problem was.
So, without saying a word, he simply stood, walked over in front of the woman's chair, signaled her to stand, took her by the hands, looked at her in the eyes for a long time, then gathered her into his arms and gave her a big, warm hug.
You could see the change come over the woman. Her face softened, her eyes lit up, she immediately relaxed. Her whole face glowed.
Stepping back, the doctor said to the husband, "See, that's all she needs."
With that, the man said, "Okay, I'll bring her in Tuesdays and Thursdays each week, but I have to play golf on the other afternoons."
Depression is the most common emotional problem in America today. The hospitals are full of persons who are severely depressed. But even those who are hospitalized, along with those who are under the care of a doctor for this malady, represent only a tiny portion of our population who are weighed down by depression, and are functioning far below the level of effectiveness as persons.
In the 4th Century B.C., Hippocrates coined the term, "melancholia." We may euphemistically refer to it as "the blues" or "a slump" or "feeling gloomy." More accurately, the experience is depression. And it isn't the malady of a particular class of people. It attacks the rich and the poor. It has no respect for race or creed or nationality. Young people suffer almost as much as adults. Did you know that suicide is the second leading cause for the death of teenagers?
For some, depression is a sporadic occurrence; for others, it is chronic. For some it is severe, demanding professional medical, medical and psychiatric help; for others, it is mild but still strong enough to make life tough and oppressive.
In its severity, it makes us impotent; even in its mildness it colors our lives gray and robs us of joy and meaning.
Since it is so common, how might we deal with depression?
I.
Let's get a perspective on our problem and the theme of our sermon. I've titled the sermon, "Out of the Miry Bog." Psalms 22 is our scripture lesson, but this image comes from Psalms 40. Listen to the beginning verses of that Psalm:
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pits, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. (Psalms 40:1-3)
Did you catch the phrase? "He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog."
That's a powerful image -- miry bog. More powerful yet if you know the swamps of south Mississippi or Louisiana. They call them bogs in Scotland and Ireland; we call them swamps or marshes. We connect the word with down to describe difficult situations. The car was bogged down in the sand or the mud. John is bogged down in his grief over the loss of his wife.
The Psalmist communicates powerfully in the use of parallels and redundancy. "He drew me up from a desolate pit." Do you get that? Is that strong enough? Then try this: "Out of the miry bog." Now that's strong.
Bog is defined in the dictionary as "wet and spongy ground." Mire, as a noun, is even stronger. It's defined as "an area of wet, yielding earth, swampy ground; deep mud or slush."
So to make it as strong as possible, the Psalmist puts those two together: miry bog. And that's a good description of depression, isn't it? In a desolate pit, or a pit of despair as one translator has it -- bogged down -- in sadness and grief, in despondency and helplessness.
Hardly anyone is immune. All of us know depression. Our different experiences are simply a matter of degree.
According to the degree, depression is disabling, inhibits our action, robs us of vitality, upsets our secure patterns and rituals of daily life, erodes our confidence, distorts our perception, and intensifies even the mildest hints of guilt to make guilt unbearable.
The suffering of the severely depressed is global. The effect is physical, emotional, behavioral, relational, and spiritual.
Now I know that a sermon such as this may offer little or no help for the severely depressed to feel, as the Psalmist said, "poured out like water." I know that severe depression is a mystery to psychiatrists and psychologists, and that causes and treatment are being revised constantly. But I also know that for many, depression is progressive; and that for all of us, there is the depression that is not severe to the point of medical treatment, but ravages our lives, bogs us down, and prevents us from experiencing the abundant life Christ offers.
So, is there some help for us -- some way to cope -- some guidance for dealing with depression? There is. The model is in our scripture lesson -- Psalms 22. Let's look at it for guidance.
II.
First of all, we must locate ourselves honestly before the Lord. That's the very first thing the Psalmist did. Listen to verse 1:
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
The Psalmist located himself honestly before the Lord.
I remember a marvelous conversation I had with Father John Powell, the Jesuit priest who teaches at Loyola, and who is one of the most effective Christian communicators in the world today. We were doing this conversation for a film series on prayer; and as we talked about prayer, John Powell underscored the necessity for honestly locating ourselves before God. And I never will forget the way he said it. Oftentimes when he wakes up in the morning, he finds it tremendously difficult to face the day, so he says verbally to the Lord, "Lord, I don't feel like being a priest today; I don't feel like being the town pump available to all who would come and demand of me."
That's the sort of thing I'm talking about -- we need to honestly locate ourselves before the Lord. And the Psalmist was completely honest. He even went beyond asking God why He had forsaken him. He cried out, "Oh, my God, I cry by day, but thou does not answer; and by night, but find no rest."
One of the problems with Christians is that we think there is something wrong with our Christian experience if we admit that we're not on top. Somehow -- and I think the devil has played a trick on us -- the prevailing notion is that a Christian must always be glowing, always be on top, never down, and certainly never in doubt about God's presence.
I think this shows how powerful the devil is: causing masses of Christians to adopt a model that even Jesus didn't fit. Do you remember Gethsemane? Sweat drops of blood, no less. Do you remember the cross? "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Let me share a powerful contemporary illustration. Theodore Parker Farris was one of the great Christian ministers of this century. Outwardly, his was a calm, serene spirit. He had a way of articulating the faith, both in his speaking, and in his writing that gave his listeners and readers courage and hope. After his death, someone found a prayer that he had written on the back of a cocktail napkin -- his own prayer:
Lord Jesus, I would like to be able to do myself the things I help others do.
I can give them the confidence I myself do not have.
I can quiet their anxieties, not my own.
What do I lack?
Or is it in the way I am made?
I like to think that You can be with me, and be in me, and that with Your help I can do better.
This is what I hope and ask for.
(quoted by Clarence J. Forsberg, in "The Art of Coping" Even Preachers Get the Blues, September 5, 1982)
The point is that no matter what our feelings of depression and despair, we're in good company. We need, then, to locate ourselves honestly before God, if we're going to begin dealing with depression.
III.
The second bit of guidance we receive from the Psalmist is to use our confidence and faith. Get that now: to use our memory to affirm our confidence and faith.
The mournful expression of his plight is hardly off the Psalmist's lips, before he grabs hold, from his memory, a confidence and faith to which he can cling. Listen to him in verses Psalms 22:3-4:
Yet thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
To thee they cried, and were saved; in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed." (Psalms 22:3-5)
One of the helpful things about the Psalmist is that he keeps the struggle going. One affirmation of confidence and faith doesn't do it. Look at the pattern. It's an on-going pattern of honestly locating ourselves before God, but desperately hanging on to the confidence and faith we know can be ours. Look at the rhythm of that struggle in the Psalmist.
Depression and despair -- Psalms 22:6:
"But I am a worm, and no man;"
Confidence and faith -- Psalms 22:9:
"Yet thou art he who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother's breasts."
Depression and despair -- Psalms 22:14:
"I am poured out like water."
Isn't that descriptive -- and as bad as that is, it gets worse -- listen to him: "And all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; thou dost lay me in the dust of death."
Wow! What depression -- but, the struggle goes on, and the rhythm prevails.
Confidence and faith -- Psalms 22:19:
"But thou, O Lord, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid!"
So that's the second insight of the Psalmist. The use of our memory to affirm our confidence and faith.
IV.
The third insight is expressed in the Psalms 22:22: "I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee."
The call is to witness and praise. The temptation of depression is to withdraw -- to retreat back into ourselves, to hide in our homes, often to hide through alcohol or other drugs. The Psalmist is calling us out, calling us to witness and praise. Our witness may be only of that which God has done in the past, but rehearsing that will keep confidence and faith alive.
Our voices of praise may crack now and then, and sometime be punctuated with the question mark rather than an exclamation point. But there is power in praise.
Look at the spirituals of our black brothers and sisters praise. Praise is the key:
Get so happy, praising my Jesus.
Get so happy, praising my jesus.
Get so happy, praising my Jesus.
Ain't got time to die.
So, we need to be called out to witness and praise.
V.
At the heart of this calling out of the Psalmist -- the call to witness and praise -- is strong direction which provides a fourth principle of guidance: Stay close to your significant others.
Persons whom you love, persons within your Christian fellowship, are an empowering presence. They provide a reality which depression often distorts. When we're depressed, we don't see things clearly. We judge ourselves harshly, we blow our failures far out of perspective, and in the extreme, we get paralyzed by self-hatred. We flounder in direction and everything becomes worse the more we withdraw.
We need to stay close to our significant others, those who love and care for us. Sometimes this needs to be others than our immediate family -- others who will provide us a "relaxed, patient, and attentive environment." Persons who will listen and love and give us a point of reference, guard us from distorting reality, and give us a warm and secure sense of relatedness.
To have someone to be together with provides one of the greatest sources of power to overcome depression.
VI.
The final word of guidance the Psalmist provides is this; Keep your commitment to the Lord alive and growing. "My vows I will pay before those who fear him," the Psalmist said in Psalms 22:25.
Commitment, you see, is an ongoing process. We must update it every day. When we keep our commitment alive, confidence of the Lord's deliverance will sustain us. As depressed as the Psalmist was, he held tenaciously to his faith. Listen to the way he closes his psalm: (Psalms 22:30-31)
Posterity shall serve him;
men shall tell of the Lord to the
coming generation,
and proclaim his deliverance to a
people yet unborn,
that he has wrought it.
(Psalms 22:30-31)
Let me rehearse now.
This is the guidance the Psalmist provides for us:
One, locate ourselves honestly before the Lord;
Two, use our memory to affirm our confidence and faith;
Three, no matter how difficult, put forth the effort to witness and to praise;
Four, stay close to your significant others; and
Five, keep your commitment to the Lord alive and growing.
Let me close with this. Somewhere along the way I heard Bishop Goodrich tell a story of a woman who had reached the end of her rope. Her husband was ill and lost his job. There were financial reverses that caused them to lose their home. There were five children to feed and clothe. She tried to find employment to help make ends meet, but the situation continued to deteriorate.
She become so desperate that, one day, having lost all hope, she took her five-year-old daughter into the bedroom. She carefully chenked the windows with rags and newspapers. Then she turned on the gas heater without lighting it. She put her arm around her little daughter as they laid together across the bed. She could hear the gas escaping but she also heard another noise. She'd forgotten to turn off the radio. Someone was singing; it was an old hymn, "Oh what peace we often forfeit, Oh what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry, Everything to God in prayer."
The woman realized her tragic mistake. She got up, turned off the gas, opened the windows. She said, "I began to pray. I did not pray for help. I prayed a prayer of gratitude to God. I thanked him for my life. I thanked him for our five children; and I made a promise that I would never forget my faith again. So far, I have kept that promise."
If you can keep your commitment alive, you can be sure that God's love never fails. He has the power to deliver us, even from depression.
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