November 30, 2011

Guest Post: "A Creative Use For Depression and Loneliness and Fears"

In my campaign to get rid of clutter, I came across a forgotten folder labelled "Worth Re-Reading." In it, I found the sermon below by John Harper, who served as rector of St. John's Church ("the Church of Presidents") on Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, from 1963 to 1993. John delivered this sermon on November 18, 1990.

One of my most cherished friends, John died in 2002. I asked his widow, Barbie -- who remains a dear friend -- for her OK to publish the sermon here. I was right when I designated it "Worth Re-reading."

Our Old Friend The Dark


Our text this morning from St. Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians -- which incidentally is probably the earliest of Paul's correspondence and thus one of the oldest books in the New Testament -- has a contemporary ring to it. "The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.... But you are not  in darkness.... For you are all children of light and children of the day: we are not of the night or or darkness." (I Thessalonians, 5: 2, 4, 5)

Our experience does not always susport these noble words. Twenty-five years ago this month, New York City suffered a total electrical blackout. In was an incredible thing to happen in a city so used to technology, and it shocked and frightened a city's population beyond imagining. There was talk of sabotage of the electrical power system by alien forces or of sinister plots by criminals determined to wreak havoc on a city and its citizens.

Two interesting effects of the blackout soon became evident, however. One was how deeply dependent people were on one another. People in the total darkness needed each other. Apartment dwellers met their neighbors for the first time; people actually spoke to one another, actually invited strangers in for meals, found ways of doing favors for those stranded on the subways or in high rise apartments. It was an incredible demonstration; total darkness showed people how much they actually needed each other.

The other unexpected effect of the blackout was that the crime rate actually dropped dramatically. You would think it would be just the  opposite, but it wasn't. People actually became lights for other people in darkness; instead of doing evil, they actually for the length of the disaster did good.

Recalling that November 9, 1965, we read our text this morning in a new way. "You are not in darkness," Paul wrote, in spite of the evidence around you. Even in the darkness that covers so much of life for us this morning, "we are not of the night or of the darkness." Ultimately we belong to the day and not the night, to the light and not the dark.

Like the experience of New Yorkers a quarter century ago, we also learn two things. One is that we can share our darkness with other people, serving them in ways which show them and ourselves that we are not alone. The other is that in times of tragedy or depression or gloom of all kinds, we can be lights to help others along the way. In short, darkness of any kind can reveal how dependent we are on other people. I on you and you on me.

A parishioner reminded me last Sunday of a sermon I preached a year or so ago entitled "Your Black Dog." It referred to Winston Churchill's periodic depression and how he used his weakness to help others. When Churchill took office in 1940 there was no reason for optimism or much hope that England and Western democracy would survive.

Yet Churchill rallied the free world to greatness. Anthony Storr observed that "only a man who had known and faced despair within himself could carry conviction at such a moment. Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason, and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by his enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance." They sustained Britain in the dark summer of 1940. "It was because all of his life he had conducted a battle with his own despair that he could covey to others that despair can be overcome."

When I spoke about the Black Dog a year ago, a number of you told me that you had one, too. Indeed, various forms of depression seem to be a common experience for many of us. What is more surprising, however, is that in spite of these kinds of darkness, people find ways of helping each other and of being lights for one another. Your Black Dog may never go away, much as the dark is a continuing fact of life. But some of us can learn that we belong to the light and not permanently to the dark, that by reaching out to another, we find our lives strengthened.

It is comforting to know that another person knows our pain, shares in whatever form of suffering we are subject to. It is also helpful to know that we can grow together toward the light in spite of the ever-present times of dark that may never go entirely away. We go into the dark and find God Himself is there, not leaving us to fight alone.

Luther's "Prince of Darkness Grim" is replaced by the King of Light who called himself the Light of the World, giving light "to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death." His resurrection is promise of deliverance from the darkness of our emotional graves. In Christ we see the struggle between "our ancient foe whose strength and power are great, armed with cruel hate" and Christ, "a bulwark never failing: our helper, He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing" (Hymn 687). The battle goes on and on for us; you and I here this morning know what darkness can mean share with each other.

Use your struggles for some good; take the opportunities and challenges that have been given to you, yes... and the darkness too, and make the most of them. We can be frightened almost to death and still learn how to share with others; we can be full of dark thoughts and still radiate that darkness into relationships with others; we can be insecure and yet allow people to gain courage from us because we have shared what little we have with them.
There can be a creative use for depression and loneliness and fears. People don't care who you are or what you are; they care that you care. Don't let the dark come like a thief in the night and rob you of your uniqueness, your integrity, your sense of self-worth. Let the darkness, as it was for the New Yorkers twenty-five years ago, be a time when you reach out to let your light shine so that others will be helped along the way because of you.

It is in giving that we also receive; others' caring and others' lights can help us. The hymn's words are true: "The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him who with us sideth." True also are the words of our text: "You are not in darkness;" you belong to the light and the day."God's truth abideth still, His Kingdom is forever."

Remember that next time your Black Dog makes his presence felt, when the blackout leaves you helpless and frightened. Others are there for you as you will be for them. Christ is there for us, "the right man on our side, the man of God's own choosing."

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