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It's Time Again: Depression and the Holidays - An ON Scripture Feature

Isaiah 64:1-9, A Reflection By Barabra Lundblad

What time is it?

Don’t check your watch. This is something else altogether. We know it will soon be the end of November and the end of Thanksgiving weekend. In the Christian calendar, it’s the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. For many people, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tough time to get through. There are too many reminders of loss:

• the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table;

• the time when being alone turns to loneliness as everyone talks about family (some stores were closed on Thanksgiving to show support for families, but what if you are estranged from your family?)

• the bright red lettering over Macy’s front door proclaims “BELIEVE” — but believe what? The very word can remind you that you don’t believe anything anymore. What time is it in your life right now?

Can we be as honest as the Bible?

Maybe you think the Bible isn’t honest at all. Besides, this is your favorite time of the year and you weren’t feeling depressed or sad at all — until I brought it up.  But even the happiest among us can have days that bring us down. We don’t want anybody to say, “You’ll get over it,” or “Other people have many more reasons to be depressed than you.”  So on top of feeling depressed, we feel guilty about being depressed. The prophet Isaiah is a good companion for times like these. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” he yells at God (Isaiah 64: 1-9). He cries: Make things better! Come down and shake the mountains! Make yourself known to the nations. Do the things you did in days of old when people really knew you were God!

Mood swings of the prophet

These words are part of a lament that began back in Isaiah 63. “Look down from heaven,” the prophet pleaded with God. Now that pleading has become more urgent: don’t just look down, tear open the heavens and come down! The last chapters of Isaiah go back and forth between assurance and doubt, hope and despair.  The previous section often called “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55) began with words of comfort and ended with glorious celebration: “You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace… and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” But now the joy is gone and nobody is clapping. The exiles who returned from Babylon are still living amid ruins and rubble. The temple wasn’t being restored to its former glory and the throne of David was a ridiculous notion.

More than 60 percent of people with depression say their moods get worse at holiday time.

Then another mood swing, not anger but remorse and deep sorrow. The prophet confesses that all of them have sinned. Yet even that confession seems to blame God: “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.” It’s not our fault, God! If you were not so far off we wouldn’t have sinned. We feel the whiplash of the prophet’s honest feelings: anger, longing, confessing, blaming. Today we might say the prophet was depressed. 

Can we hear one another toward healing? 

Honesty about depression sometimes becomes more public in places we ourselves have not traveled. Because of the post-traumatic stress experienced by many soldiers returning from recent wars, the subject of depression is no longer hidden. But we know depression also affects people who have never gone to war. Gay teenagers have committed suicide because of bullying and abuse. We also know many people live with depression for years, often with the help of counseling and medication. The reality is all of us can experience losses in our lives that lead to depressive thoughts and feelings of hopelessness.

The days from Thanksgiving to Christmas are a time of amplified loss and a time of amplified caring. Some congregations plan a “Blue Christmas” service to acknowledge feelings of loss, anxiety and depression. These honest, holy gatherings assure people they are not alone in their depression and reject the notion that depression is a lack of faith in God. Perhaps Advent can be a time to practice a “Triple A” way of living: Admit our feelings. Ask for help. Accompany one another through this season of ups and downs. Isaiah gives us permission to be angry, to yell at God, to be genuinely sorry that we’ve messed up — and to blame God for making us mess up!

Yet that’s not all

“Yet” in verse 8 marks another mood swing.  Through the anger and sadness, the confessing and blaming, comes deep assurance: “Yet, O God, you are our Father (and our Mother); we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” This word doesn’t erase the other words or deny the feelings. The prophet still longs for God to tear open the heavens and come down. Yet, even longing for more, the prophet trusts that God is present.

During World War II, a young woman named Etty Hillesum kept a journal of her days under German occupation in her native Holland. As she watched the slow destruction of the Jewish ghetto in Amsterdam, she wrote: “The jasmine behind my house has been completely ruined by the rains and storms of the last few days… But somewhere inside me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed… And it spreads its scent round the House in which You dwell, oh God. You can see, I look after You. I bring you not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy, grey Sunday morning, I even bring you scented jasmine. I shall try to make you at home always.”

Etty, her parents, and a brother and sister died at Auschwitz. Her journals were discovered in 1981 and were published as An Interrupted Life-The Diaries of Etty Hillesum. Somehow in the ruins and rubble of her life, she came to a place of deep assurance. She found Isaiah’s “yet” in spite of danger and despair. She brings her tears and her forebodings, the grayness of the day and the scent of jasmine. She speaks directly to God saying, “I shall try to make You at home always.” No matter what time it is in our lives, her words can be a quiet prayer whispered in the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Bible Study Questions:

• Why is it hard for you or someone you know to admit being depressed?

• How can preachers and lay people help break the silence about depression without breaking confidentiality?

• During these days from Thanksgiving to Christmas, how can we help and be helped by the “Triple-A” approach — Admit our feelings. Ask for help. Accompany one another.

For Further Reading:

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark

Yochi Dreazen, “The Invisible Front” (Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War)

Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (especially chapters 56-66)

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