Setting a table in the Valley of Death: This pastor’s journey with depression and anxiety

 

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A couple times a year, articles circulate on social media shared from an outside source which cite some frightening statistics.

For instance.

• 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.

• 50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.

• 50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.

• 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.

Now, these statistics are often shared generously by fellow clergy. They’re accompanied by comments like, “churches take care of your pastors!” Rare is the pastor, though, who will say, “Hey, guys…I’m struggling here. And I want to invite you into this struggle.”

Pastors don’t say it, because pastors don’t feel like they can.

They feel like they need to be perfectly together for the congregation. They need to be an idealized version of a christian.

And so pastors hide.

And somewhere along the line, I realized that as a pastor, if I ask for honesty from my congregants, but never lived it out myself, I’d be a hypocrite.

More importantly, if I as a pastor, don’t invite you into my life, we will miss out on something beautiful. We miss out on the community of faith becoming a community of healing.

So today I’m going to invite you into my life. Into my mind. But more than that, I’d like to invite you into what God has been teaching me. This isn’t theory. It’s not something I’ve just read in a commentary. It’s real life blood, sweat and tears.

I am depressed and suffer from anxiety.

I’m not exactly sure all the reason why I suffer from depression and anxiety, however my guess is it’s part genetic and a mixture of a few other things.  Not knowing the “why” doesn’t change the fact that it’s there. Present. Walking with me most of my days.

Some days are better than others. Some days are worse than others.

Some days it’s a buzzing deep in my chest, other days it’s completely debilitating. Leaving me unable to think or function in any normal or meaningful way.

Like anyone who suffers, in these moments, I often find myself asking questions of God:

“God, why is this happening to me?”

“God, why haven’t you healed me?”

“God, where have you gone?”

We pray these prayers in so many areas of our lives, don’t we?

Sickness.

Grief.

Heartbreak.

Sadness.

Depression.

Anxiety.

The ways in which we find ourselves suffering are as numerous as the number of people who suffer.

Somewhere along the way, the church found itself telling people who suffer that simple faith will heal you and make you whole (just this past week I heard a sermon given in our denomination saying this very thing). Sermons are preached and small groups taught telling us that if a person just believes enough, God will respond and healing will take place.

And so we pray. We, God’s children, pray. Begging, pleading, asking with tears in our eyes for our father to make us whole.

Then, when we once again find ourselves in the middle of the pain, we find our pain has brought a friend. Guilt.

We begin to carry shame from our lack of faith in the power of God.

Because God can’t heal us if we don’t believe deeply enough.

This is a lie I believed for the longest time. This recently has begun to change, much due to a beautiful song of David.

Psalm 23. 

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

forever.

My whole life, I’ve read this psalm as if it’s a single movement. Recently, though, I discovered Psalm 23 isn’t one. No, it’s three.

Three movements. Three acts. These acts go like this:

First act, we read:

 

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

    He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

    he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

    for his name’s sake.


In this act, life is beautiful and good. The world is filled with green pastures. Gentle, running, streams.

One can almost taste the clean mountain water, and can smell the dew in the early morning air.

These are the moments when we sit in the stillness and quiet of the moment and we are overwhelmed by the goodness of God.

God is here in these beautiful moments, and in them, he restores us.

We love to experience faith here, and once we find ourselves here, we fight like mad to stay here. Unfortunately, the spiritual life doesn’t linger in green pastures nor beside still waters.

The spiritual life often moves to a darker place. The second act.

Even though I walk

    through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

    for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

    in the presence of my enemies.

Darkness.

Valleys.

Fear.

Enemies.

Oh, we understand this place, don’t we?

We know what it feels like to feel assaulted by the enemy. Seen and unseen alike.

The red eyes in the darkness surrounding us.

Sickness unrelenting.

Anxiety paralyzing.

Depression suffocating.

Sadness life sucking.

Oh, we know this part all too well. This valley can become so familiar.

And in the third act we read:

You anoint my head with oil;

    my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

    all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

    forever.

This is a beautiful way to end this psalm.

Images of anointing, healing, goodness, love, and a place to belong in the house of the Lord.

We want this.

We crave this.

But the question becomes, how do we move from the valley death into the goodness of the house of the Lord?

We want our lives to be filled with the good, and often we’re told we can claim that good, and God will give us this good.

How many times have we, in the middle of the darkest moments of our lives, been told by a well-meaning family member or friend that we can “do all things through him who gives me strength?”

And how often do we feel as though this well intentioned comment cheapens the pain we’re in? Makes us feel like we are the problem. That our pain is the result of our own failure? Faith not enough.

And so, in our pain, we push into greater effort. Striving, working, pushing to walk ourselves out of hell.

Here’s the thing, though. It was never about working ourselves out of hell. 

It was about something different.

To understand this, let’s look at this psalm again.

Theologian, James Meade points out something beautiful here.

“In Psalm 23, we find there are fifty-five Hebrew words in this psalm, and unlike many other psalms almost none repeat.

Only the Hebrew words for “Lord” (vv. 1, 6), “day” (v. 6, twice), and possibly “restore/return” (vv. 3, 6, NRSV “dwell”) are repeated.

It’s as if the poet were given a list of some fifty words and told to write the most memorable poem in human history.

Moreover, a total of fifty-five words creates a precise center (the 28th word), namely, “you,” in reference to the Lord.”

“You are with me.”

It’s as if the whole psalm was built around this understanding of “God with us.”

More than this, it’s built around this understanding of God with us wherever we actually, specifically are. This beautifully given shape and form through the line, “You prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies.”

You see, when we move out of the pastures and the rolling hills and walk down into the darkness of the valley, it’s everything we can do not to run away screaming.

When we’re attacked, and when we’re assaulted on all sides, we plead for God to bring judgement upon them. The psalms are filled with these sorts of pained requests. “Kill my enemies. Bring judgement on them. Lift me out of this pain.” the Psalmist often writes.

But psalm 23 reminds us that, more often than not, God not only doesn’t airlift us out of the valley, he often choses to set up a dinner table in the middle of our hell.

He actually moves into the darkness with us.

He sits there, eating with us, sitting in the pain and the sorrow with us.

I love the way pastor and theologian, Tim Keller says it:

“While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”

This God-enabled grace to sit in the midst of pain in holy anticipation is seen all the way through scripture.

Early we quoted Philippians 4:13. A verse frequently offered to those suffering as a “pick-me-up” to pull themselves up and feel better about life.

But the context is important. Leading up to this passage we read (v. 10-13):

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

If anyone suffered, it was Paul.

In a letter to another Church, paul wrote more about these “troubles.” He said:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

I wish I could tell you that the Christian life is free from struggle.

I wish, desperately, that I could tell you that every time you sit in the valley, darkness surrounding you, that God will come in and swoop you out of it.

I wish I could tell you that faith alone will deliver you from the worst parts of this life. The most painful parts.

But I can’t. I can’t tell you faith will alway heal you. I can’t tell you faith will always deliver you from the hell in which you sit.

This isn’t consistent with what we understand about the life of a Christ follower.

But I can promise you this.

In the middle of the fire, the storm, the disease, the anxiety, the fog, the depression, the fear, the tension, the despair, God is with you. Near you. Suffering with you.

I want to direct you, one last time, back to our Psalm.

More specifically to the first verse, the middle verse and the last verse.

The lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

I will fear no evil, for you (The Lord) are with me.

I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

When you begin to see the way in which the Psalmist structures and repeats his words, you begin to see a truth emerging…and that’s a portrait of the divine shepherd who is there at the beginning, the middle, and the end of our journey.

In the good, and in the bad. In the lightest and darkest.

Amongst friends and darkest enemies.

You are not alone, my friends. Take hope.

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4 thoughts on “Setting a table in the Valley of Death: This pastor’s journey with depression and anxiety

  1. Your blog comes from a real place. In this generation persecution comes from within and from without the Church. But as you have pointed out, you are in good company. David, Jeremiah, Samuel, Job, Jonah, and Jesus (Yeshua) suffered as you. So did St. Francis of Assisi , Martin Luther , William Tyndale, Abraham Lincoln. All extraordinary men, with a painful calling to make positive change a reality for the rest of us. In your humanity, you may cry out “Why me?” But in the depth of who you are, you know why. Your head has been anointed with oil. Men like you are men after God’s own heart.
    Thank you for sharing your heart, Pastor Michael. You are doing good.

    • Wonderful article of a pastor being transparent. My husband had suffered with OCD, panic attacks, and severe depression. Nobody understands unless they have been there. Pastored 2 and1/2 years. He had an emotional breakdown about 11 years ago. Yes he would like to be healed too but continues to struggle with these horrible things. Says if he had not been taught he would go to hell if he killed himself he would! Thank you for posting this.

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