I Know That You’re Here (poem)

I know that you’re here. I feel you in the air.
The frost in the trees. The taste in my hair.
I know you’ve come back. You fool me no more.
I know what you smell like. I know what you’re for.

I feel depression crawling, clawing back to play.
I feel my eyesight change, from vividness to grey.
I feel the sleepy, creepy cold that coffee cannot slake.
I feel the touchy, tetchy mold that makes my brain cells ache.

I will give in. I choose not to pretend you’re gone.
I will give in. I acknowledge the control trip that you’re on.
I recognize my weakness, and I recognize your skill
You suck away my stamina and drink away my will

But I will not give up; giving up ain’t giving in.
I will not give up. This ain’t a game you’ll win.
I know that you’re here, and I’ll play on tonight,
But soon you will vanish, drift out of my sight.

So I pray for forbearance as I wait through the dark.
I seek now the patience of Noah on his ark.
The storm will soon end, and I will emerge.
For now I will nap, and just write this dirge.

 

It’s Hard (Poem)

It’s hard to hear all the anger
It’s hard to live with the strife
It’s hard to learn that conflict and hatred
Are the backdrop for living this life

It’s hard to talk with each other
It’s so hard to listen and hear
It’s hard when the very thought of someone
Can paint your emotions with fear

It’s hard to trust in the process
It’s hard to remember God’s promise
It’s hard to believe that divine light shines
From people who show forth no oneness

It’s hard to let go of harsh words
It’s so hard to hold onto patience
And it’s tragic how hard it always becomes
To hold on to kind affirmations

Anyone who told us that life would be easy
Was a fool or a liar at best
But why is it we all, no matter how privileged
Feel like we’re being oppressed

Sigh.

Snapshots of My Depression #11: Not the Best Man

This is one in a series of posts I’m calling “Snapshots of my Depression.” These are memories of times in my life when my mental illness manifested itself in one way or another.

It’s been a while since I posted one of these “Snapshots.” I thought maybe it was time to dust off this series, and keep it going. This post is the story of how I got into regular therapy with my first long-term counselor. I’ve already written about how my depression got to the point of suicide, and I’ve already written about the amazing experience I had at First Hospital Wyoming Valley in the aftermath of that attempt. But that wasn’t when I started seeing a counselor regularly. Sure, I did see somebody for a month or two after my hospital stay, but it was actually about ten years later that I finally saw the need for ongoing therapy.

It started with a wedding, a wedding that was making me upset.

But it actually started at a different wedding, about a year earlier, a beautiful wedding on the Jersey shore. A college friend of mine was married that day, and so a lot of Muhlenberg grads were there. Among them were me, my wife Heather, and Pete and Jean, who were engaged to be married the following year. Pete was (and is) one of my closest friends, and Jean was (and is) one of Heather’s closest friends. All four of us met at Muhlenberg, and it was a remarkable and wonderful coincidence that we ended up in two couples like this. Being at this beach wedding just a few months before their own wedding, Pete and Jean certainly had their own nuptials in mind. Unfortunately, I had their wedding in mind as well. Particularly the makeup of their wedding party.

Ah, yes. The wedding party. My wife Heather was to be matron of honor. And I…was to be just an ordinary groomsman. Because another college friend, Eric, was to be the best man. Not me. Eric would walk down the aisle with Heather, not me. Eric would be next to Pete in the photos, not me. And it’s because it was Eric that I was upset. If it had been anyone else, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me. Here’s the thing – Eric, Pete, and I were inseparable in college. We called ourselves the “triumvirate.” We argued and fought, but we were brothers. We were equals. There was something holy about the three of us, something special beyond any combination of two of us, a trust that couldn’t be broken. But now it felt to me that Pete had broken that trust. It didn’t matter to me what role Eric and I had in Pete’s wedding, so long as they were equivalent. But they weren’t. To me, best man was a higher level of honor than groomsman. And I was pissed.

I tried to be calm about it. It didn’t matter, right? It was just one of those things, right? I kept telling myself that in truth, Eric would be far better at all the best-man functions than I (which is true). I kept telling myself that this isn’t a statement about our relative worth. I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t feel this way. I tried to pretend I didn’t. I tried to play it off as a joke for a while. But as time went on, the jokes got less and less funny, and more and more awkward. By the day of the wedding on the shore, my passive-aggressive behavior had been going on for a few months. And the last straw happened that day. During the reception, with perhaps too much alcohol running through my veins, I said something that went way too far.

And Pete called me out on it. He took me outside, and told me I had to stop this. He told me how upset he was. He told me that he needed me to figure out how to get over this. I cried. I apologized. I told him that I didn’t know why I was so upset about this. I didn’t know why I was so angry. And I promised him that I would get some help.

And within a week, I called Council for Relationships, a counseling center in the Delaware Valley. My counseling relationship with Lucy began with trying to work out what my anger was all about. She helped me with that, and we kept meeting for about five years. Thanks to her, I was able to unearth all kinds of things from my past, and start the process of working through them.

I’m so grateful to Pete for forgiving me for my behavior, and also for having the courage and the compassion to call me out on this. That was the catalyst that started me on a journey of lifelong healing.

Get up. Do not fear.

This morning, I had the opportunity to preach at St. Andrew’s Ev. Lutheran Church in Perkasie, where I was Director of Education/Pastoral Assistant from 2000-2005. St. Andrew’s is celebrating 150 years of ministry this year, and I am one of several former pastors and other staff members they are inviting to return this year. Here is the sermon I preached. Today was the festival called The Transfiguration of Our Lord. The gospel reading I preached on was Matthew 17:1-9.

Oh, and one more thing. While I was at St. Andrew’s, I developed this habit of preaching in verse sometimes. I couldn’t resist doing it again on this special day.

The last time I spoke from this pulpit
My hair was long, gorgeous and flowing
And sitting down here on my chin
A red beard, not a grey one, was growing
It’s been a few years, just about a dozen
Since I needed to use all that mousse
But as you can see, not all things have changed
I still preach like a bad Dr. Seuss

It’s great to be back, to hear Brian play
And that window is like a gift from above
But it’s you in the pews, though a lot of you are new
Who make me feel welcomed and loved
This church holds a place that’s so dear to my heart
Cause you trained me, you honed me, you know
And within all my bluster, my hair, and my youth
You helped my potential to grow

And it did. Now I’m the pastor of church up in Bangor
We call ourselves Prince of Peace
They’re a wonderful people, they remind me of you!
And today they’ve allowed me release
But the truth is, today’s not a vacation for me
I haven’t pastored at all for eight weeks
I’m right now in the midst of a medical leave
For it’s healing right now that I seek

And I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to discuss
The disease that brought me to my knees
It’s something many of us hide in the dark places inside
And I’d like to shine some light, if you please

I live with depression, and sometimes it gets bad
Medication and therapy help
But something went wrong this past summer and fall
And I could no longer do it myself

I couldn’t find joy; everything felt bleak
Hard to work, and I lost track of friends
And the more I tried to snap myself out
The more I floundered and twisted again
Depression is not just a feeling of sadness
It’s like being beaten by someone inside
And it took me so long to finally stop
Trying to be strong, trying to hide

I hope it’s okay to tell this to you
But I’ve learned slowly over the years
That being open and honest about what we face
Is better than living in fear

I am grateful my church has given me this gift
This chance to find new ways to cope
And this morning I’ll tell you just a bit
About the vision I’m finding of hope

I’ve spent my time reading, meditating, and praying
Several therapists, and a few support groups
I’ve walked a few labyrinths, and even tried yoga
I’ll be honest, that threw me for a loop

I’m learning to quiet the voices inside me
The voices that tell me I’m bad
The voices that tell me I should have known better
That help me feel worthless and sad

I’m quieting those voices, and do know what I hear?
I’m hearing a message come through
A message that I am God’s beloved child
That God is holding me, saying “I love you”
It’s a message of clarity, of seeing myself
The way that God sees me, I guess
It’s not always easy to trust this message
To trust that God always says “Yes”

But I’m learning, I’m growing, I’m looking, I’m here
And every so often I see
A sign that I know must be from God
A sign that God really loves me

It’s not every day. It’s not every minute.
It still feels like I’m running a race
But once in a while, when I don’t even expect it
I receive a sign of God’s grace
And I’m also learning right now that it’s okay to trust
That in all those times God seems to hide
Though I do not quite see it, and cannot quite feel it
God promises to walk right beside

Now you might be wondering why I’m talking so much
About my sickness and journey to health
A sermon’s supposed to talk about God
And I’m up here blabbering about myself
But I believe this connects to our gospel narration
On this Festival Sunday we call Transfiguration

On a beautiful morning four men climbed a peak
Jesus led his friends up the mountain
When suddenly prophets and thunder and clouds
Poured down upon them like a fountain
And there stood Jesus, glowing and bright
Speaking with Elijah and Moses
A voice came from heaven: “Behold, it’s my Son!”
They were scared from their hair to their toeses

But through their great fright, and through that great cloud
The disciples saw everything clearly
This vision of Jesus, in glory and power
The dawn of a new life, the king of the hour
The colors as deep as a new budding flower
The light shining strong as the mightiest tower
The disciples saw everything clearly
This vision of Jesus, in power and glory
Which was nothing shy of revelatory
It didn’t quite fit in a neat category
Yet fulfilled all the writings, completed God’s story
The disciples saw everything clearly
That Jesus was God quite sincerely
That God was made flesh, loving them dearly

But the vision then faded, it didn’t last long
And Jesus looked normal again
He touched them and said, “Get up. Do not fear.
And follow me into the glen.”

So where did he take them, and where did they go?
Well, you’ll hear about that journey in Lent
But I think that those details are not today’s point
The point is accompaniment
For Jesus went with them, through bad days and good
This Jesus from whom God’s light had shone
He wiped all their tears, and he held all their fears
And they were never, ever, alone

And I think that’s the joy we can take from this mountain
The good news that we can embrace
As we walk along through the valleys of our lives
We can remember we’ll never lose grace

We just might see Jesus, we might glimpse his glory
But that’s not a promise he made
Sometimes we’ll see him, and sometimes we won’t
For my part, I’ve learned that in spades
But wherever we go, and whatever we suffer
The king of all glory walks with us
That’s the promise he made, the promise we trust
It’s the greatest gift that he gives us
For when Jesus is with us, our fears can calm down
Our worries and struggles can lessen
And that is the hope that I’m clinging to now
The hope that there is hope from heaven

So that’s where I am, and here’s where you are
All of us trusting together
That whether we see him, he’s here every day
Jesus walks with us forever

Home in Perkasie

This morning, I attended worship at St. Andrew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Perkasie. In fact, I preached there today. This was a very special day for me, because St. Andrew’s holds a very dear place in my heart. Right out of seminary, but long before I became ordained a pastor (that’s a different story), I began to work at St. Andrew’s as their Director of Education/Pastoral Assistant. I was there for five years, overseeing the youth and Christian Education ministries, and also doing some occasional preaching and pastoral care. I went there very green and naive, overconfident and arrogant. I left there five years later with what I thought of as a mixed legacy…I had accomplished some things, but along the way, I had also made some significant errors in judgment and sloppy mistakes. When I left there twelve years ago, they told me then that they would miss me, and that I had done great work…but I have always wondered. I’ve always wondered if the ways I helped a few young people grow in faith and leadership were enough to make up for those I yelled at, and may have turned away from the church. I’ve always wondered if the people whose lives I touched were enough to make up for the people whom I angered and annoyed. I’ve always wondered if the ways I was able to help the senior pastor there made up for the ways I made his life harder. I’ve always wondered if I was just fooling myself that I made a difference.

But that’s the depression talking. That’s the dark voice inside talking. I know rationally that I did make some mistakes, and I did do some things right. And I know that when I left, I heard such wonderful things from so many people. I was given such beautiful gifts and well-wishes. I know rationally that nobody can ever do everything perfectly, but I also know that I tried to be faithful. I tried to be honest. I tried to use my gifts to enhance the ministries of St. Andrew’s. And I know that on balance, I did do so. But it is so hard to remember that. It is so hard to keep that in mind. It is so hard to not let it take over.

So they invited me there today because this is their 150th anniversary year. Throughout the year, they are inviting former pastors to return and preach. While I am not technically a former pastor, I suppose I am a former preacher there (I did preach about 8-10 times a year while I was there), and I’m now a pastor. So a few months ago, the pastor called to invite me, and when he asked when I’d like to come, I thought that perhaps doing it during my medical leave would be a good thing. My role would be to preach during the two worship services, and also say a few words at a special breakfast held between the services.

So I was driving there this morning very anxious. I was anxious about my sermon, anxious about my speech. I was anxious also about just going there. Would anyone there still be upset with me? And I was anxious about the content of my sermon…I planned to speak about my depression, about my medical leave. While this talk has been welcome at my current congregation, would it be unwelcome here? When I served at St. Andrew’s in my twenties, I wasn’t as open about my condition as I am now. (And frankly, I didn’t understand it as well then either.) Oh, all these things were floating around in my head. I didn’t know what to expect.

It was wonderful. Why didn’t I expect that? I was welcomed with open arms and big smiles. Lots of hugs and lots of memories. My sermon seemed to go over well, and several people told me that it touched them or that it helped them understand a loved one better. Ah, why do I get myself so worked up?

It was wonderful. I was so happy to see so many people from such an important part of my past. I poured so much of myself into that job, as I tend to do. And today I was reminded that it was not in vain. I really did make a difference in some people’s lives. And they made a difference in mine. It was so good to see people who cared for me, who believed in me, people whom I care for and whom I believe in. I was thinking this afternoon about how to put my feelings into words, and the word that kept popping up was “home.” I felt like I was home this morning. It just felt right to be there. They are my friends, my family. I don’t say this to in any way disparage my current congregation. On the contrary, I realize today that I am so very, very blessed. Because I have more than one home.

I have several places that have become homes to me, and I think that’s because I have let people into my life, and I have shared of myself with them. It’s risky to do that…it can hurt. And it has hurt. But it also creates something far more important, far more powerful than hurt. It creates home. I know I won’t be there very often. But today, just for today, St. Andrew’s was home. And I feel so very, very blessed.

And I know, I know very well, that my current congregation is every bit as much of a home, and I will return to it in just four weeks. I know that I will be welcomed back there with open arms, many hugs, and so much joy. I know that they will be so excited to have me back. I know that on that day, I will feel like I’m home again. And I will be.

Later this evening, I will publish the sermon I preached today at St. Andrew’s.

Forgiving Myself

I want to write this out, because I want to practice saying it. I need the practice, because I’m not very good at it.

I want to write this publicly, not in my journal but publicly on this blog, because I want to say it out loud. I want people to hear me say it, because I think the accountability will help.

I forgive myself.

I forgive myself for not focusing enough on my morning devotions today, for allowing it to be perfunctory, and not really allowing myself the time and attention to connect with God.

I forgive myself.

I forgive myself for spending part of the morning dealing with tech support for my my computer, only to discover that apparently the problem is with my internet service provider. I forgive myself for getting so very cranky about that, and for wasting the rest of the morning playing video games because I was just so cranky and out of sorts. I forgive myself for taking longer than I wish to turn to mindfulness to calm down.

I forgive myself.

I forgive myself for cutting my meditation short this afternoon, because it just didn’t feel like it was going anywhere. I could have powered through it, and perhaps grown more through that, but I didn’t. Perhaps it was the wrong choice, but if it was, I forgive myself for that.

I forgive myself.

I forgive myself for not reading today. And for not getting my exercise today. For not eating well today. For not answering my mood tracker app when it asked me, “How are you feeling right now?”

Today was a lousy day. I just wasn’t on today. It wasn’t a total loss…I got the grocery shopping done, got my hair cut, got a new internet service provider lined up for installation in two weeks. I had some good time with the kids. And today, that’s enough. I don’t need to beat myself up for this. I don’t need to be “better” than this. I am who I am, and today was what it was. And that’s alright.

I forgive myself.

Joy through Togetherness

My father lent me the book The Book of Joy by Douglas Abrams, a series of interviews with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I’m about a third of the way through it right now, and I’m finding it to be excellent. Here is a paragraph that especially spoke to me today:

“What the Dalai Lama and I are offering,” the Archbishop added, “is a way of handling your worries: thinking about others. You can think about others who are in a similar situation or perhaps even in a worse situation, but who have survived, even thrived. It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole.” Once again, the path of joy was connection and the path of sorrow was separation. When we see others as separate, they become a threat. When we see others as part of us, as connected, as interdependent, then there is no challenge we cannot face – together.

These two great spiritual leaders also discussed that this connection isn’t just about sharing sorrows, but about reaching out and sharing generously with one another. They say that joy is found, paradoxically, through giving it away. This discussion of meaning and joy through connection is resonating with a lot of other things I’ve been reading lately, as well as things I’ve learned over the years. Also, it seems to be a good description of the blessings of support groups. Between the support groups I’ve been attending, and reaching out to a lot of old friends, I have found this to be a source of comfort and hope these past weeks.

I have also found this blog to be a source of comfort. I set myself a goal at the beginning of this medical leave…either journal or blog every day. I’ve been pretty good about it…I’ve probably succeeded at least 80% of the time. I’m surprised how much of it has been blogging, and how relatively little has been journaling. I’m doing a lot of this work in the open, inviting you to participate, and I’m heartened at the response I’ve received from so many of you. Thank you.

Interestingly, the place my mind went with this was to consider how I might do my job differently when I return in seven weeks or so. How I might be a different sort of pastor to what I’d been in the past. How might I nurture that sort of “togetherness” (ubuntu, as Archbishop Tutu calls it) in my congregation? How might this be something I need in order to continue to be a pastor, and how might it be something helpful and holy for the congregation? My initial thoughts involve sharing my ministry with others. Perhaps there is very little that I do that I need to do alone.

I already do this in a few ways. I am in continual email contact with our pastoral assistant and three lay volunteers, regarding pastoral care issues. When someone goes in the hospital or is in some other pastoral need, the five of us coordinate our visits and other ministries. This has been a very good thing, I think, for the person in the hospital, for me, and for the volunteers. I wonder if it might be wise to have a group of people whom I could meet with, either in person or via email, to discuss congregational conflict issues regularly. Instead of treating them like an emergency fire to be put out, perhaps it can be an ongoing discussion, with a team deciding how to deal with whatever conflict seems to be occurring.

I also meet regularly with a group of people within the congregation who together study the readings for the upcoming Sunday. There are a number of good things that come from this “Dwelling in the Word” group, and among them is an idea of where I might go with the following Sunday’s sermon. They help me to get a “perspective from the pews” on the readings. I wonder if it might be wise to also have a method to invite people to respond to my sermons after the fact…perhaps a handful of people who are invited to meet with me each Monday, perhaps a group that changes monthly? Or perhaps it could just be a feedback form a few trusted people are invited to fill out. I’m not sure.

I’m almost halfway through this medical leave, so I suppose this is the right time to start considering thoughts like this, the right time to just begin thinking about how I might make re-entry work. It’s not time to plan for that yet…that will come. But it’s good to start batting ideas around, I think.

Tomorrow, snow day. Lots of opportunities to keep my eyes and mind open.