This morning in South Central Pennsylvania, the sun is shining. The Japanese maple tree outside my window is in full leaf. The steeple of the Presbyterian church rises behind it. Although the tree changes with the seasons, this has been my outside view for several years now as I sit at my desk, consistent and reliable. My star word for this year is Constant, and it reminds me how few things are. In a season of political and ethical turmoil, not much seems reliable.
But this view, and the things I see when I walk out my door or drive down my street remain – essentially – the same, despite potholes or snowfall. A hydrangea grows beside the church’s youth center, which sits next door to the Manse, with shades of blue like crayons, they are so intense. I see the church, these houses, the fence around the Associate Pastor’s backyard. (Yes, we live on what amounts to a compound.)
There’s something reassuring, constant, about the sameness of these things, this place. Similarly the landscape of Portland, Maine, offered a framework for my life for so many years, the curve of Baxter Boulevard around Back Cove, the uneven brick sidewalks where I walked my dogs, the esplanade of trees shading Sheffield Street. I did some of my hardest personal work talking on the phone while standing beneath those trees, considering what would come next while driving that route, trying to be ruthlessly honest with myself while wrangling a big dog.
Do you remember the concept of having a Constant that was part of the TV Show Lost? In that case the idea was that a person could be your constant; there was a romantic implication there about Desmond and Penny, although there was a time-travely bit, too. (#fantasy) In mathematics it means an unvarying value and in other disciplines the idea is the same, is constant. It’s something that doesn’t change.
I suppose that means a person or a place or a thing cannot be a constant, cannot be constant.
I’ve been pasting a little star with the word handwritten on it in my bullet journal every week, trying to keep the word in front of me instead of forgetting it as I have some years. I’ve studied lists of words in the thesaurus that suggest the nuances of the word: fixed, ceaseless, trustworthy.
What or who has unvarying value?
In this season of turmoil, I’m asking questions while walking a different dog under different trees. I’ve fallen out of the habit of my spiritual practice, which for many months was reading the Psalms and writing prayer in their margins. Instead I wake each morning to see what new terrible thing has happened in this inconstant world. The other day, my friend Mary Beth posted on the question, “How can you pray at a time like this?” She pointed me back to the Psalms, and I thought of a phrase from Psalm 146. It’s helping me today. I’m not saying it’s enough to pray, but maybe if I can pray again, I can do the work that needs to be done, with God as my constant.
1 Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! 2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3 Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. 4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, 6 who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; 7 who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free; 8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. 9 The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!
It was spring, just barely, in 1996. I was a patient on P6 at Maine Medical Center. P stood for Pavilion, but everyone around Portland thought the “P” meant P(sych)6. I had a postpartum depression that devolved into a major depression. I can look back now and see how it happened, a mixture of a primary care doctor’s hope that a little Zoloft would do the trick and my own shame about being on meds keeping me from talking to anyone who might have actually helped.
Depression hurts. It actually hurts, physically. It drains all the light away. Bewitched by bad brain chemistry, a depressed person doesn’t see things the way they are and especially not the way they could be. I was in seminary in 1996, and I critiqued my faith and I stopped sleeping and I kept my spouse up all night talking but never quite telling the truth. On Maundy Thursday I dragged myself to the church where I was interning and played a tiny part in the Tenebrae service, doing one reading, snuffing out one candle, then leaving the sanctuary as all the readers had, to walk around the building and slip in at the back for the rest of the service. I knew I was in deep trouble by how much effort it took to accomplish that simple assignment. It should not have been so hard, would not have been so hard for a person who did not ache in body and spirit.
It was the next day, Good Friday, that I sat in my bathrobe in the chilly kitchen of our old house and watched Lucy, proud and smiling, crawling toward me still in her pajamas, and realized it was 11 o’clock in the morning, and I needed help.
When you call the psychiatric line for your insurance on a Friday, and it’s also Good Friday, and it’s also Passover, they suggest they can find you someone on Monday. So please try to get through the weekend, and if you can’t, then go to the Emergency Room.
It’s so matter-of-fact when they say it.
There are some things I can’t write about, because they involve the other parent of my children and because, honestly, I don’t know if I remember them right despite having intense sense memories of that day and the next, when I did go to the ER, where a middle-aged medical resident looked me hard in the eye and said, “I think you feel worse than you’re telling me.”
I spent six days in the hospital, six bizarre and sometimes scary days, traumatic enough that I determined I would never get into *that* state again, although I’m not sure what made me think I could prevent becoming depressed in the future. I sat in group sessions about assertiveness and wondered how someone as bright and educated as I could have landed there in a room full of depressed people. I sat in a room with a huge circle of medical professionals who asked me to tell my story and then informed me that a person thinking of driving a car off the road *while* driving the car is not simply having suicidal ideation. That person has a plan.
I’m not sure how the people around me felt about my depression. If I use words like “disbelieving” or “ashamed,” I fear I project my own feelings at the time onto them. Even my boys knew it somehow wasn’t an ordinary stay in a hospital. After all, I was wearing my own clothes when their father brought them to see me. I was allowed to leave P6 and go be with them elsewhere in the hospital. Someone I knew vaguely walked by. I felt embarrassed, in my own clothes, wearing a hospital bracelet. I felt sure she knew.
Another day, my husband came in just with Lucy, who not only could crawl, but was also starting to “cruise.” That visiting hour was particularly crowded on P6, so we sat in the hallway on two chairs, facing each other, while she moved back and forth from one of us to the other. She had a big MAM pacifier in her mouth. On one move toward me she plucked it out and popped it into my mouth instead.
I’ve written this part of the story before, and I have described that moment as a turning point. I wouldn’t be that mother whose child had to parent her. And while it was a significant moment, certainly, the truth is I didn’t get all better all of a sudden, and I didn’t get better forever. When depression swelled again, and it did, I hated to admit it. I needed that to be behind me, and I refused to acknowledge its presence with me. I made poor choices from that place of pain and confusion in the neighborhood of the edge of the abyss. I ignored my actual desires, remade myself into something I thought the world wanted me to be and then limped along more anxious than depressed (most of the time) for a good many years. I did a great job pretending my depression had been a one time thing. Until today you would find no category for depression on this blog that covers over ten years of my life, yet I can promise you there were times. There were times.
This is one of those times. And I write this recognizing that I remain ashamed, not because I think depression is shameful, but because I know many people have given thanks right along with me that I came out and found love and moved toward a more authentic life, blessed by God and finally, finally living as the person God made me to be. Why the hell am I depressed? Why do I have to worry people who thought of me as safely, even victoriously, settled for all time? What is wrong with my faith?
And that’s the key to the feeling of shame for me, a shame I would do anything to lift from anyone else who suffered with such a feeling. Please, I would say, remember how Jesus reached out to those who suffered, whatever their pain, whatever their illness. Remember how he loved them, how gently he spoke to them, how he touched them with his own hands, how he implored the darkness to leave them. Remember that he understood and cared, and that his experience on the ground with us is surely part of God’s being now.
People don’t, not all of them. They look for something or someone to blame. I am guilty of this, too. Explanations reassure us that something or someone is in control, for good or for ill. (It’s the same sort of thinking that leads to a theological position here lampooned by The Onion: Leading Cause of Death in US is God Needing Another Angel.) I liked blaming hormones, and when a friend asked me yesterday whether the nearness of menopause might be a factor, I liked the sound of that. Postpartum, menopausal – this is all hormones!
But I know there have been other times, and the truth seems to be that I tend this way at times, with or without particular cause. Years of behavior modification have taught me to try and do the things I love at other times, even if I don’t feel particularly enthused about doing them. I’ve done a lot of knitting the past few months, and actually finished projects. I remind myself of things I committed to do, and make sure I do them. I turn on the kind of music that is supposed to be good for a person’s brain.
This time around, I see a therapist, and I tell her how I’m really feeling. Well, I do it as best I can. Because the truth is I often still feel worse than I’m saying.
I take comfort in knowing depression is not a uniquely modern complaint. People have been crying out to God about this darkness and this pain for thousands of years.
Have mercy on me, Lord, because I’m depressed. My vision fails because of my grief, as do my spirit and my body. My life is consumed with sadness; my years are consumed with groaning. Strength fails me because of my suffering;[a] my bones dry up. ‘I’m a joke to all my enemies, still worse to my neighbors. I scare my friends, and whoever sees me in the street runs away! I am forgotten, like I’m dead, completely out of mind; I am like a piece of pottery, destroyed. (Psalm 31:9-12 Common English Bible)
And in case you think that’s the modernized influence of a new translation, here’s verse 9 from the King James:
Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am in trouble: mine eye is consumed with grief, yea, my soul and my belly.
All that and more can be found in the Psalms. But so can this:
But me? I trust you, Lord! I affirm, “You are my God.” My future is in your hands. (Psalm 31:14-15a, CEB)
Today I’m giving thanks for the way that Psalm came across my screen. Even though some days, even a lot of days, I feel closer to verses 9-12, I’m making sure to say these today: I trust you, Lord. You are my God. My future is in your hands. Amen.
Psalm 1 is sort of awful and wonderful, all at the same time. It exhorts us to live by the law of the Lord and promises that things will go well with us if we do. Don’t sit with the scoffers, it warns, because things are surely going to suck for them.
For the righteous faithful, things sound better:
They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (Ps 1:3, NRSV)
I haven’t always felt so fruitful as that, despite my best efforts to be faithful. Sometimes the streams of water, of grace, of love have seemed unreachably far away.
Today I read this Psalm in a new translation, the Common English Bible, and I found something I needed to see. Here’s the fresh look at verse 3.
They are like a tree replanted by streams of water, which bears fruit at just the right time and whose leaves don’t fade. Whatever they do succeeds. (Ps 1:3, CEB)
RE-planted! I love it!
A tree can be transplanted, and while it’s not always successful, it is possible for a tree to thrive. The apple tree planted in my backyard came to us from a nursery, root ball in a burlap sack. It had already been growing somewhere else, clearly. I thought it was simply a flowering tree and looked forward to enjoying its blossoms. But in my backyard it found a home and sunk down roots and even gave forth unexpected apples.
Of course the trick is we have to be willing to risk ourselves, to choose to be transplanted, away from the things and people and habits of mind and heart that separate us from God.
The truly happy person doesn’t follow wicked advice, doesn’t stand on the road of sinners, and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful. (Ps 1:1, CEB)
So it takes more than passive, nice, safe faithfulness. And don’t kid yourself; being active and rigorous and discerning involves risk, because it upsets other people who like us the way we always were before. Loving the Lord’s instruction (again CEB) requires an energetic commitment. We have to choose away from the disrespectful, the road of sinners, the wicked advice. We have to choose toward God. That’s when we will find ourselves planted anew, by streams of water.
At Confirmation class the other night, we did an exercise called Spiritual Gifts Bingo. I'm not sure I ever understood the rules as laid down in the teacher's book–my co-teacher has taught this for so many years, I get to skate on some of those details–but what we did in practice was go around and suggest to one another which of the gifts listed the person might have, and if they agreed they put their initials in the appropriate square.
I loved seeing the reactions of the students when I suggested to them they were "fair" or "empowered others," the smiles that crossed their faces in surprise or appreciation. I liked the things they thought I might be: "caring leader," which I accepted, and "patient," which I did not. Sometimes I'm patient…but not always. I'm quite patient with them, but generally not at all patient with myself.
And I wonder if these aren't things so programmed into us from early life that they are nearly impossible to change, at the same time I would, no doubt patiently, encourage the Confirmands that our faith is all about the possibility of transformation.
A long time ago, so long ago it seems like another life, I moved to Maine and started attending a church where they used Inclusive Language for God. What that meant most of the time was leaving out the masculine pronouns. We still sang from the very old-fashioned Pilgrim Hymnal (which I love in many ways), but our Doxology spoke of Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost rather than Father and Son. Coming from a Baptist background, I didn't have much experience with liturgy, so that part didn't throw me.
But later, later, I realized there were people around me thinking of Goddess rather than God, of Mother rather than Father, and I had to grapple with my understanding of God. It was the beginning of a long period of transformation, a spiritual turning point with no apparent destination at the moment the turn began. I came to love the idea of God as Mother, and eventually I moved onto a place where I could see both masculine and feminine characteristics in the First Person of the Trinity, but to have neither of them feel very important to me.
Jesus, however, remained a guy.
Today I talked with a group of women about the feminine image of God in tomorrow's gospel lesson, when Jesus speaks of feeling like a mother hen, wishing to gather her chicks beneath her outspread wings. I shared a Barbara Brown Taylor piece from the Christian Century that pointed up how brave the hen is as she defends her young with nothing but her body. She has no weapons to use against the predators. She puts herself in the way to give the little ones a chance to escape.
I struggle when I hear of the triumphal theology that some contemporary Christians have, the kind that says Jesus is the buff defeater of evil.
No. His wings are spread, his chest exposed, his life given vulnerably, going down without a fight.
It's a ferocious love, that willingness to sacrifice yourself, to be hurt yourself.
At the end of our session this morning, I asked the group, and I'm asking myself, to look around us this week and see who or what needs our ferocious love? Now, I'm not suggesting we can be Jesus. We can't. Everyone in the room identified with that image of the protective mother, of doing that protecting, and I'm pretty there's a place for us to employ it.
But I'm not sure I've ever been on the receiving end of such love in this life.
And in a phase when I am quite impatient with myself, I wonder if I don't need to show it to me, to fend off my own predatory perfectionism, to own my vulnerability as a shield instead of a weakness.
The December after Hurricane Katrina, I went down to Mississippi
to volunteer, mostly by filling in for a Methodist pastor whose home had been
flooded. It seemed like a great idea at the time; I really wanted to go to the Gulf
Coast, but I have very few
practical skills in the area of demolition or rebuilding. When a blogging
friend asked for preachers to come and give a break to her colleagues who were
in distress, I thought that might be something I could do. I had the
opportunity, thanks to Small Church,
to take ten days for the mission trip. This gave her two Sundays off in a row,
a huge gift of time for a preacher.
But shortly after I offered to go, I began to worry. I
looked ahead to see what texts I would be preaching, and they offered little
comfort. Instead they contained references to God in the mighty waters of a
storm (Psalm 29) or the water coming over Jesus’ head as he was baptized.
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was
baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart
and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” (Mark 1:9-10, NRSV)
What made me think I had anything to say to people whose
lives had been quite literally covered by the storm surge? I began to think I
should be sending a plumber instead.
In the end, I realized that if I truly believed the Holy
Spirit had nudged me to go to Mississippi,
I ought to trust that the same Spirit would be with me when it came time to
preach on those Sunday mornings in January. The first was New Year’s Day, 2006, and I
remember having a sense that although the weather seemed bleak, hope could be
found in the community of that Methodist church. The pews in the back third of
the sanctuary were filled with donated food and clothes; a teacher arrived
early to teach Sunday School on New Year’s Day, which amazed me; and the people
came eagerly to worship, to sing and pray and give thanks to God.
I’m not sure I had anything brilliant to say that day, but
people definitely noticed the way I said it. As one older gentleman put it, my
Maine-with-notes-of-Virginia accent made for “an unusual patois.”
And that’s the dialect of faith, isn’t it? We speak an
unusual patois of fear and hope, of death and life, of disconnection and
reconciliation. I’ll be in Mississippi
again, on my fifth annual trip, from January 1 to 6, and I promise to bring
back stories to share with you. The people who hear them in person will no doubt chuckle to hear my languorous vowel sounds.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126, NRSV)
One of the things that gives me hope is quite simply the flip side of the thing that makes me frustrated about my own life and the lives of those around me: we tend to repeat ourselves. Sometimes I wonder if I am caught in a feedback loop, and I really worry when it sounds like I am my mother or my father having a conversation with me when I so strive to be a more awake and enlightened parent than they ever were, in my opinion. Although looking back I guess they didn't do such a bad job, really–after all, my brother and I are both productive members of society, raising kids who are thriving in one way or another, smart kids with interests and talents, and even one adult among them now, gone out into the world with his own harvests to anticipate.
But I don't love it when I hear frustration creep into my voice, when my old wounds and rejections become part of my parent-child relationships.
In fact, I hate that crap.
I'm pretty familiar with crap this morning. Sam strained or sprained something the other day and has been on a regimen of Tramadol and rest since Thursday afternoon, and this has thrown off his schedule of "bidness," and this morning I came downstairs to find a big pile of…that stuff. It cleaned up easily enough, but it served as a reminder of the way we all have habits to which we return unconsciously, primal tendencies that assert themselves in moments of stress, or exhaustion.
They're not all as charming as the way I slip back into my Southern accent at the end of a long day or when speaking to an unknown group of people.
Communities have habits, too, patterns of relationship to which they revert when things aren't going well, or even when they are going *too* well. Even churches do this. If things aren't going well, God must not care about us, we think. Or if things are going extremely well, we may neglect the life of the spirit in favor of the more visible successes of life.
This psalm provides a vehicle for getting back on track. It's a song that says, oh, yes! We have become disconnected at times, and we thought God might be neglecting us or punishing us, and we plodded along watering our work with our tears–but we came back from the field with shouts of joy!!!
It sounds simplistic. God took stuff away, then for some reason God gave it back. I sometimes think we don't give those ancient writers of hymns and psalms full credit for the ritual nature of their compositions. Come back to God, they are saying, knowing full well that even a faithful person may have a bad crop or a dry season. Come back to God, because why ever you do it, it's a good thing. Come back to God, because believing you can handle it all yourself will surely lead to saying, "Oh, crap! Why did I think that?"
Come back to God, and be renewed by the natural mystery of cycles and seasons. Come back to God and give thanks that going away was always part of the human condition. Come back to God and give thanks that it is never too late to rejoice. Come back to God and give thanks that it is never too late to return.