I am a licensed lay preacher in the Oregon Diocese of the Episcopal Church. It's been quite a while since I've been asked to preach, and for good reason. I suffer from depression and my illness is compounded by a predeliction to overcommit myself.
For example, the Episcopal churches of Lane County, here in Oregon, celebrated 150 years of the Episcopal church's presence here in the county in fall of 2004. All the parishes in the county came together for a worship service, outside, at the fairgrounds. I was the preacher. I wrote a sermon as if I were giving the first sermon to Episcopalians in the Oregon Territory who had made their way West, suffering trials and suffering. I parallelled the western settlers' experience to that of the Israelites journeying out of Egypt into a promised land.
That same fall I was asked to eulogize a friend's almost four year old son who died of cancer. That was really my last sermon. I was happy to preach these two sermons and would do it again. Unfortunately, these sermons, which were good and enriched the services I gave them at, came at a bad time.
In the fall of 2004, a breakdown that had started earlier in the year picked up steam and by February of 2005, I was nearly hospitalized, so deep was the black hole of depression I had fallen into.
During these past two years of breakdown and recovery, I have been very irregular in attending church or participating in church activities. Previously, I had been very active as a lay preacher, host of a lecture series, Adult Education teacher, and other things.
But, I needed rest. I kept working. Teaching, thanks to my reduced mental strength, was exhausting me and I decided I needed a rest from the social demands of church. I resigned from the College Ministry Board. I gave up the lecture series. I said no to things. I didn't have the energy to talk with people at church, even if I wasn't doing anything or being asked. I stopped worshiping.
I should add, at this point, that no one in the church pressured me to do anything. I loved all this activity. By preaching and teaching and inviting speakers from the college and from our parish to speak at the lecture series, I was doing what I have a passion for. Cruelly, what I loved to do was making me more sick. I needed to pull back.
This morning, I was the lector in the 9:30 service. I read the Old Testament lesson. I love being a lector. It was only my second visit to church since I returned to Eugene from Kellogg back in September. Today, for the first time in quite a while, being at church energized me rather than drained me. I saw people I hadn't seen in a while. Our parish is looking to hire a new associate priest. A candidate preached. His sermon was superb. I sang for the first time in months.
Sometimes I fear that depression has become a sort of a disease du jour. Depression has come out of the darkness it has hidden in for many, many years. It is more public. More and more, I think people are understanding that mood swings, loss of energy, moroseness, times of manic high energy, unpredictable confusion, periods of long sleep, irrational behavior, and self-destructive bouts with alcohol, poverty, apparent laziness, street drugs, pot, and even violence, are not always driven by one's will, that is, by one's choosing. Behavior is not always driven by choice. In fact, in some cases, in may rarely be driven by actual deliberation. Depression is insidious. It does not fit in well with our general cultural assumptions that good people work hard and stay out of trouble and make sound choices. Therefore, a tendency still exists to describe the diagnosis of a mental illness as an excuse or as a problem that is a result of weakness in character, not a result of treatable bodily and mental maladies.
To get back to something like preaching again, I plan to write a sort meditation in this blog each Sunday upon one of the appointed Scriptures for that Sunday. I won't belabor today's Scripture. I've written enough already. Today's New Testament came from the gospel of Mark. Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and that the second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself.
I have often thought that Jesus recognized depression or mental illnesses in others. The gospels often refer to people suffering from mental illness as possessed by demons. Jesus' miracles included delivering these demons. Jesus saw that not all demonic behavior was the result of an evil will.
He extended the kind of love and understanding for others, who he called neighbors, that all of us, Christians or not, can learn from. What Jesus understood was that it is not difficult to love and understand those in your tribe, those you agree with, or those who make you feel comfortable.
The difficult task is to love the neighbor who is different, prickly, criminal, indifferent, ill, hungry, lazy, rude, desperate, preachy, self-righteous, aggressive, arrogant, or unbathed, unkempt, or smelly. I know I am and have been all of these things. It makes it hard to love myself, let alone my neighbor. But, to live well, it's what I've got to do. I've got to love myself. Otherwise, loving my neighbor hasn't got a prayer.