Sermon on Psalm 42 for Pentecost +10 A, August 17, 2014
My focus is usually on the gospel text, but, this time it is the Psalm that I want us to look at together. The reason is that it was written by a person who was depressed. We do not know who wrote it or anything about them. The title says it was written by a group, the Korahites, known for being a group of singers in the temple according to the book of Chronicles.
But those Psalm titles are secondary and late, and are often guesses at best. If there were ever a personal Psalm, expressing the emotions of an individual in pain, it is this one. Originally, it was probably connected with Psalm 43; they share a common refrain and other features. But we will look only at Psalm 42 today.
I departed from the lectionary texts to look at this Psalm because there have been a variety of reasons recently to experience sadness, and to reflect on what sadness and depression is about, and how to deal with these emotions as people of faith.
Missing Robbin Williams
Recently we have been aware of the tragic death by suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams. News of his death was sad enough at first, and only became more so when we learned of the circumstances.
Robin Williams entertained us and made us laugh for years. Ironically, though I rarely mention pop culture references in sermons, just last week I recalled his dramatic role in the film Good Will Hunting. That film will always be, for me, a powerful exploration of human emotional complexity. It is also a film about the potential for hope, and the capacity for personal redemption, and so it is fitting to remember in our present context as well.
Robin Williams was enormously gifted. They said the Disney animators who drew for Aladdin had to work their heads off to capture the instant character changes he portrayed. When Aladdin rubbed the lamp for the first time, the Genie came out singing, “You ain’t never had a friend like me.” As he sang, Robin ran through a myriad of voice impressions in rapid fire. No one was his equal.
But along with being uniquely gifted, Robin Williams was also troubled. He went through treatment for cocaine first, and then, throughout his life, for alcohol addiction. Near the end of his life, his friends reported that he had sought help with depression.
I do not know if Robin Williams suffered from “clinical depression,” but in any case, all depression is real and painful.
The occasion of William’s death by suicide shows us both the depth of his own sadness, and the news of it caused us sadness as well. It also leads us to reflect about our own sadness and even, for some, our depression. For those of us who have been touched by suicide in our own families or among our close friends, this is all the more a poignant moment.
So, as a person of faith, I turned to the book in the Bible that most openly expresses human emotions, from joy and awe to bitterness and grief, including sadness and depression; the Psalms.
Psalm 42 was written by a person in deep sadness, and perhaps depression. He uses the language of the self, which is translated for us, the “soul.”
First he speaks of his longing for God’s presence, saying,
1 As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
Longing is the experience of absence; so he feels that God is not nearby, but far away. He makes it personal and vivid. What is the food of a hungry heart?
3 My tears have been my food day and night,
He puts the inevitable and crucial question on the lips of cynical friends – perhaps not even being able to admit that it is his own question too:
“while people say to me continually,“Where is your God?”
The “Where is God?” Question
Here he has struck a nerve. It feels as though the answer is: “Nowhere; God has left. In God’s place in my heart is now only sadness.” People of faith are not people of perpetual happiness. People of faith suffer loss, feel grief, heartache, and sadness. And when we do, yes, let us admit it: it feels as though God has gone away and left us alone.
What to do? The Psalmist tries memory of happier days; maybe it will cheer me up to recall past times of joy, when God seemed real and present.
“4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.”
But it does not work. Memory alone is not enough. It may even make things worse. Immediately after this memory of happy festivals and songs of thanksgiving he says again:
“5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?”
This is so true for us. Memories can be like mental quicksand, pulling us down instead of lifting us up. We remember when the church was strong, when the seats were filled, when there were children and young families, and before we were so deeply divided over controversial issues.
We remember when our loved ones were still alive and still healthy. We remember how much we used to be able to do that we can no longer manage. We look in the mirror and hardly recognize the person from long ago that we still think of ourselves as.
I recently ran across a story about this. A man was on a cruise. He left his cabin to head toward the room where the music was playing old dance tunes. Way down the hall in front of him an older woman was just exiting her cabin at the same time. She was nicely dressed, but looked old and somewhat bent over. She had not noticed him.
As she started walking along ahead of him, she heard the dance music. In that instant she started to do a little shimmy, snapped her fingers, and made a little shuffle and swerve. Then, “when she reached the door, she paused, assembled her dignity and stepped soberly through.” (The story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul, 3rd Serving, p. 240).
For a moment she was the woman she remembered being, decades earlier, before she was camouflaged by age. We are all like that. Our minds can hardly conceive that we are not in our 20’s and 30’s, even as we feel the pain in our joints and see our reflections in the mirror.
But the trouble is, often that the very memories of past joy can lead to the painful realization of the present reality. We will never be 25 again. Our lost loved ones will not return. The reasons for our sadness are real, and probably permanent.
The book of Psalms is realistic about the facts of sadness and depression. But it is not a book of therapy. Fortunately, for us, researchers who study emotion have a great deal of help to offer.
For those of us who have clinical depression, professional help is what we should seek immediately. There are solutions. Some of the problems are cause by brain chemistry, and so there are medical interventions that we must never feel ashamed to take full advantage of.
For all of us, I want to share some basic insights that are powerfully effective in dealing with sadness.
First, ruminating on the cause of our sadness is not helpful. This is what we naturally do, even though it never works. We say, as the Psalmist did, “Why am I sad? Why are you cast down, O my soul?”
And then we look for specific causes to justify our sadness – we remember things that hurt us or losses we have experienced. We plumb our feelings in the recent past – and we always, always, always find blame-targets for reasons. The practice of ruminating always makes the sadness worse, and never makes it better.
Second, researchers tell us that feelings are real and simply must be acknowledged. Shutting down, turning away, hiding, masking, our feelings is never successful. What we burry in one place simply comes up in another – often in bodily signs of pain, discomfort, or even actual illness. We cannot distract ourselves out of our sadness with TV or golf or shopping. And if we self-medicate through pain-numbing substances like drugs or alcohol, we will only make matters worse and worse.
So the solution that is the alternative to ruminating and to denial is simply to say to ourselves, when we become aware of sadness: “It is already here.” We become aware of our feelings, and we acknowledge them as present and real. We say, “Whatever feeling I am feeling, it is already here. It is real. It is already present.”
So, we then give ourselves permission to feel it. We say, “Whatever it is, it is already here, so let me feel it.” We allow ourselves to feel the sadness that is already there; the grief that is already there; the hurt, the loneliness, the pain, the loss.
Most often, when we allow ourselves to feel the pain, it lasts for a time – often no more than a half an hour – then, like a cloud burst that pours down hard then passes, the feelings of intense sadness subside.
This is cyclical. The feelings may likely return, especially when the cause is a permanent condition, like the loss of a person we loved. But each time the cycle repeats, we go through the same process. “The feeling is already here; it is real; so I will let myself feel it.” We do not judge the feeling as a bad feeling, or ourselves as bad for having the feeling, we merely acknowledge the reality and allow ourselves to feel our feelings, just as they are, non-judgmentally, in the present moment.
There is more to it, and I have some excellent resources I can direct you towards if you are interested. We have them in our church library and they are readily available for purchase online. (see especially, The Mindful Way through Depression: freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness, by Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn, 2007, a clinically proven cognitive therapy + mindfulness approach.)
In the end, we have this hope, in spite of our feelings of sadness: that God is there, and is there for us, even when it does not feel that way.
Twice the author of Psalm 42 asserts this statement of faith, even against emotional odds:
“5 Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.”
Hope in God. Hope is a risk, not a certainty; it is the risk of faith. Hope is what Jesus modeled for us. Hope in the God that Jesus taught us to know and love. Hope in the God of the birds of the air and the lilies of the fields. Hope in the God who Jesus called, “Abba” our loving Heavenly Father who gives us each day, our daily bread. Hope in the God who has seen us through many days – good days and bad days – and will be there for us in the future, until we draw our last breath in this life.
“Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.”