Today I am happy to introduce you to Graham Ware. He’ll be addressing the important topic of depression. Specifically, how it has shaped him in pastoral ministry. But I won’t spoil any more. Check it out below. Graham is pastor at Centre Street Baptist Church in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can find him on Twitter or read his personal blog here.
Nate put out a plea for some guest posts which would look at issues of vulnerability and spiritual formation. Since this topic is deep and tension filled for me, I wanted to lend a voice to the discussion, which will hopefully be of encouragement to some and thought provoking and challenging to others.
First, I make a confession; not an easy one for someone in leadership to make. It’s a “confession” not in the sense of admitting I’ve done something wrong, but confession in the sense of revealing something which affects my identity and theological perspective. Because the confession affects my identity, I’ve struggled with who to share it with and when. But I think it’s a vital topic for the Church as a whole to talk about.
So here it is: I have depression.
That’s hard to say for a pastoral leader. There are stigmas attached, and people’s presuppositions can impact how people respond to the leadership of someone dealing with depression (or any other biochemical condition).
I was 16 when I was diagnosed with depresseion, and about that time I began to follow Christ as well. I have to be honest though, I was willing at that point to try just about anything. I couldn’t function in school (I was on the verge of expulsion). I was crippled by migraines exacerbated from the medication I was on. I was often reclusive and anti-social. I was never really awake, and never really able to sleep. I needed something, anything.
My conversion didn’t take the depression away. I had no assumption I would be miraculously healed, and I didn’t resent God for not taking it away. It was mine, and God was (and still is) weird and new to me. But what sometimes shocks people is that the months following my “conversion experience” in 1999 were the worst time of my life. Things didn’t get better… at all. They got worse. This grace thing sounded great, but my brain wouldn’t let me in. I knew there was something in this gospel. I knew it was real. But it wasn’t real… yet. I was so desperate to allow this grace thing do something in me to get me out of this hole I was in. One day I was so fed up with the day I was having. It was one of those days, when I just couldn’t handle the drama of teenagers being… well, teenagers.
I needed a break from it all.
Now, the hospital classified this event as a suicide attempt. It wasn’t. The thing about depression is that you never really rest. Your brain won’t let you feel at ease. When something goes wrong in life it eats at you, and you know you need to let it go and you want to let it go, but you can’t. So I wanted to end that day, try again tomorrow, give my brain a break. I over did it though. The liquor and sleeping pills I took would have been lethal, but I was taken to the hospital in time.
There was some discussion of canceling my baptism which was scheduled for a week later. I said no. My pastor said no. I was shocked he agreed with me. But we both saw the obvious (or at least what’s obvious now in retrospect). What I needed was death and new life. I wish I could say a miracle came and all is well, but the struggle continues even today. I have learned to battle it head on (I quit using the SSRIs and sleep aids cold turkey to the horror of my family doctor), but it’s a battle that no one really wins. It’s like being Rocky; just staying on my feet feels like a win. I know it now. I am so familiar with it that see it coming and I have a set of possibilities to ward off the darkness; walking, a drive, singing (I do that in private as it’s not a pretty picture).
But now, being in my 30s, I think back and wonder what if. What if it was miraculously gone when I was 17? What if I never had it to begin with? What if this thing that happens in my brain just wasn’t there? What would I be like now if depression was not part of my reality? And here’s where it gets really weird- I’m not sure I’d be where I am now, pastoring, preaching, leading, without the depression. It was the desperation of that dark place in my life which sent me fleeing towards the hope and light of grace. It was in the darkness that I found God, and New Life. It was in the midst of the cold, barren wasteland that I realized I wasn’t alone. I have to ask myself, is my dramatic encounter with God, and the discovery of his presence inextricably linked to my calling to walk with others? Is God calling me to bring life to others by revealing his power to bring life exemplified in my struggle? Is not my testimony capable of being a source of encouragement and life to others?
So why then do I feel so hesitant to share this story of mine?
Well, the thought of appearing weak is a never ending source of fear and anxiety. I’ve always been hesitant to admit that I had this problem. To be a 16 year old male with depression is hard. In the culture of High School where guys seek to be tough, macho, strong, invincible, to admit to having depression is to become perceived as weak, a sissy, a wuss (or worse words I won’t use here). I got called all of those more than just a few times, for different reasons, even without being “outed”. Now part of me fears what being outed as having depression will do for me as pastor. Will they trust me? Will they worry if I can be relied on? Will they hold back for fear of “breaking” me?
One seminary prof. challenged me, suggesting I don’t take myself seriously as a preacher. I wondered… don’t I? Does this thing cause me to be so lacking in confidence that others notice it when I preach? Are my words about hope and joy discredited by my situation? Do my doubts come across in my preaching?
Admittedly, the depression made it hard to accept my call- or more accurately to understand why I was called. I knew I had something to offer people. But why this forum? Why the pulpit? Why university, then seminary and ordination and dealing with hurting people? Shouldn’t that be for “stronger Christians”?
And then Henri Nouwen entered my life.
In the Wounded Healer Nouwen writes, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”1. Of course, he also asserts “Open wounds stink and do not heal”. He suggests that our experiences of suffering allow us to identify with the common pain of others, but “spiritual exhibitionism” is of little or no value (pg. 88). This shades how I reveal my struggle. As I said already, depression doesn’t go away. I am not “cured”. But continually parading this in front of people will not instill hope or confidence when they are in distress. Instead what they need is hope.
My wounds serve “as helpful teachers.”
This opened my eyes to what God was up to; not that God was causing my pain, but I saw in it the inherent value in struggle. I had been forged. I was not weak. I was more than a conqueror. I was not broken. I had something worth saying. I was not irrelevant. I had been given a gift. I was not sick. I have been given life. I am not cursed.
That may sound weird to speak of depression as a gift. It certainly is not a gift in the sense of something I desired, or asked for. But somehow, in the midst of it, I find strength. I find strength in my weakness. Paul in 1 Cor. 11 & 12 speaks of boasting in his weakness and foolishness. He was despised, rejected, and ridiculed. But he saw that as a sign that when good happens, he is acutely aware of the power of God at work in him. God’s grace is sufficient.
Still even after acquiring this perspective, the battle rages on. I have dark days when I feel like there is no “good news” I can share. Some days I feel like there is no hope or joy. Some days, depression reigns where Jesus should. Does that mean I have “fallen away”? Does my darkness mean the light of the Gospel is cast out of me?
Phil Zylla writes, “hope is veiled as a persistent dimension at the root of suffering”2. He continues, “hope is subtler than its usual portrayal in popular Christian belief as ‘triumph.’ It might rather be seen as dialectic with despair- hope teeters, as it were, between despair and confidence.”3. Hope is not the absence of despair, doubt, suffering, anxiety. Hope is to battle on, to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” because God is there.
So I am walking in hope to testify to the presence of God in the midst of the battle, and the battle belongs to the Lord.
1Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, New York: Image Books, 1972, pg. 72
2Phil C. Zylla, The Roots of Sorrow: A Pastoral Theology of Suffering. Waco: Baylor, 2012, 147