Depression, Gospel of Mark, Lent

Things we know but cannot explain in a sound-bite (Mark 1:29-45)

A lot happens in the first chapter of Mark. Early in my ministry, I preached a sermon on this section entitled “The Magical Mystery Tour,” both because I thought it sounded a little sassy, and because Jesus seemed to become a regional rockstar in a hurry; today we might say he went viral.

But it does seem like people are mostly showing up for the transactional aspects of his ministry.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed.  The whole town gathered near the door.  He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him. (Mark 1:32-34, CEB)

It’s a straightforward thing, healing those who are broken in body. But whatever the underlying spiritual condition or psychiatric diagnosis of those afflicted by demons takes us into territory that is less measurable, some kind of super-natural wilderness journey. Does Mark mean that the evil spirits are silenced, or the people who have been troubled? Further down, Jesus also calls upon a man with a skin disease to be silent, but the man doesn’t listen; he goes on his way and tells whoever he feels like telling! Jesus asks him, but doesn’t prevent him. I guess it’s because this guy with refreshed skin and a happy new outlook on life knows he has been healed in body, and could point to the person who healed him, but has no real idea who has done it for him.

Some evangelical voices have gotten pushback over the past week or so for suggesting that mental health issues are entirely spiritual issues. I’m not going to link to them, but I will say one made a statement on Twitter and some others made remarks during a women’s conference. As a person who lives with chronic depression, which is sometimes no problem and other times a significant factor in my daily life, I can testify that there are times when my life in a faith community and my personal spiritual practices help, but there are others when they do not, and I’ve long since moved past thinking that how well I do the practices or how active I am at church can make all the difference, or that God is not helping out enough, but I also know that most of the time, in most situations, it helps that I have those resources, except for the times when it really, really doesn’t.

That’s a terrible attempt at a sound-bite.

Recently I heard Suzanne Stabile say that she has noted a trend among church leaders in her circles to have a semicolon embroidered on their stoles or to have a semicolon tattoo on their wrists, so that people in church who struggle with mental illness will know it’s safe to talk to their pastors and other faith leaders. The point of the semicolon, as described by Project Semicolon, is that you are the author of your own life; like a sentence punctuated with a semicolon, it’s not over.

I’m glad that my story did not end when I was most depressed, more than twenty years ago, and at serious risk of dying by suicide. I’m grateful for the people I was able to trust, somehow, who understood that brain chemistry was no reason for shame and that my identity as a person of faith both helped and made things harder. They were so good to me, and along with the medical and mental health professionals who treated me, they saved my life.

Jesus is going to move on to other territories; he has more to do than heal people in one neighborhood or one community of their physical or mental or spiritual afflictions, which sounds okay if you don’t have any of those challenges, I guess.

He’s going to move on because he has something else to say, and a story to reveal about himself, even though he’s not ready yet for anyone to know it.

Healing God,  it’s hard to put you into a few words, but let me try. Thank you for coming among us. Help us to remember that the story is not over


I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I am also referring to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible. Tomorrow I’ll be reading Mark 1:29-45. You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts..

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