‘The light shines in the darkness’…but what if we can’t see it? Rediscovering the language of lament. Sermon for Adel Parish church 7th Feb 2021
John 1: 1 – 14
That has to be one of my favourite bible readings. It brings me out in goosebumps; it transports me back to countless carol services or Midnight Masses…candles lit against the darkness…sharing once again in the miracle of incarnation.
‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’
It has been with me when times are tough. I’ve offered it to others as comfort – most memorably in the funeral of a teenage suicide victim. I believe it.
But where does it leave us if we can see no sign of the light shining in the darkness, when the darkness does indeed seem to have ‘overcome’?
Depression is something we tend to avoid discussing…although things are improving. Perhaps that might be one good to come out of this pandemic. I hope so, as stress and isolation have probably increased levels of depression.
I suspect churches have been even worse than wider society at making space to discuss it; perhaps because we struggle to bring it in to our faith story.
I’m sure we reject the idea that enough faith should prevent Christians becoming depressed. But even if we’re sure that’s wrong – we’re not sure where it leaves us when the Christian narrative is one of ‘sure and certain hope’.
First, I think we need to listen to those who’ve experienced depression…because it’s so baffling from the outside. We might see a person who has many reasons to feel ok; who appears physically healthy; who is loved. Who may well believe in Christ…the light in the darkness.
And they can probably list these things too; they know what they should do to make things better…but those same things are impossible.
Here are a few descriptions given by people who know:
‘depression is like an ice pit that you cannot escape from; everything is frozen including emotions; it’s too slippery to climb out.’
‘It’s like eternally grieving for something and never quite being sure what that something is.’
‘It’s a kind of active nothingness, and it feels like it’s consuming everything else.’
‘Depression is a sinking feeling every morning that you are still alive and have to somehow get through this day. Utter exhaustion – lack of ANY joy.’
Hopefully, we’re ready to listen with compassion, just to be there when needed; but where do we find the language, when the story of hope seems to fail?
Actually we do have that language in our faith tradition. Read the psalms and you hear the voices of people in utter despair; people who feel utterly abandoned by God.
Psalm 6: ‘Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths where there is no foothold. I am worn out calling for help; my eyes fail looking for my God.’
Psalm 88: ‘You have taken me from friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.’
There are many more; and these are worship songs, written to help us talk to God. Often, they end with a verse saying…’and yet I will trust in God’…but not always. But they are not statements of disbelief, they are cries to the living God.
There are countless stories in scripture of God’s hiddenness: The psalmists, Isaiah, Elijah, Job. It’s a thread running throughout the bible, the paradox of how God can be so present sometimes and yet so absent at others.
Then there’s the ultimate cry of despair, from Jesus himself on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know, of course, that God had not forsaken Jesus. We suppose that Jesus, who is divine, must know that too.
But Jesus’ cry is not that he ‘feels’ abandoned, in that moment the abandonment is real. Because God did not take Jesus off the cross. Jesus cried in utter despair – and heard no answer that he could recognise.
Yet he cried to God. Somehow his statement of God’s complete absence comes with the presumption of God’s presence. This is not about loss of faith.
So we have this language of lament – we’ve just got out of the habit of using it. St Paul tells us one of the fruits of the spirit is joy – have we somehow come to feel this means Christians should be generally cheerful?
Christian joy though, is not happiness. In our Advent course we struggled with Paul’s instruction to ‘rejoice always’, as if we can be joyful on demand. We can’t of course, yet sometimes we find ourselves hoping people suffering depression will somehow do just this. We made sense of it by reframing joy as knowing Jesus loves us.
John Swinton, in his book, ‘Finding Jesus in the storm’, suggests something similar…joy as an act of resistance against the forces of despair. Joy not as feeling better after the struggle – joy as deciding to struggle. Because, he says, Christian joy isn’t a feeling at all, it’s the presence of Jesus.
Perhaps all this gives no help at all to those in the pit of depression. But it reminds us that feeling God’s absence is a normal part of faith. Our scriptures are full of it, even Jesus experienced it.
Faith isn’t always feeling God’s presence, sometimes it’s hanging on to the memory of his presence…the possibility of his presence. The language of lament gives us words for these times…words that shout at God for being absent, words of despair, but not of disbelief.
This doesn’t take away the horror of depression, or suggest it’s just a worse version of a bad day. But it says depression is not outside the experience of God’s people. Christians struggling to see the light in the darkness – but hanging on to their faith – are perhaps living that faith more fully and more faithfully than when they’re well.
It’s part of many faith journeys – we should be able to acknowledge it and talk about it.