Blessed are the…Depressed?

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.
1 Kings 19:3-9

I never have subscribed to the idea that mental health challenges like depression and anxiety are sins caused by a lack of faith. Furthermore, I think this idea is not just wrong but harmful. It not only intensifies the suffering of those who must deal with anxiety or depression on a regular basis, but badly misrepresents the God who longs to “comfort those who mourn”.

Just look at Elijah, who is arguably one of the greatest prophets in the Hebrew Bible.  God was apparently impressed enough by Elijah’s faithfulness that rather than allowing him to walk the valley of the shadow of death, he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind borne along on chariots of fire. During the time of Jesus, it was commonly believed that Elijah would return before the Messiah appeared. Jewish families still set a place for Elijah each year at the Passover table in anticipation of his return. Yet in today’s passage we see Elijah physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted enough to say “I wish I were dead”. And notice especially how God responds to his state of mind: not with condemnation, but with comfort.

Today’s lectionary passage only tells part of the story, so here’s a little background on the events immediately preceding the reading for today: Acting as God’s representative, Elijah has just orchestrated a dramatic and successful showdown with Israel’s state-sponsored prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel. He is elated, believing that now surely everyone, including Israel’s rulers, will turn away from false gods to the true one. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, Queen Jezebel doubles down and vows to exact retribution, sending Elijah first running for his life and then despairing of it.

God doesn’t attack Elijah for his lack of faith. God doesn’t say “What is wrong with you? How can you react like this after what you’ve just seen me do?” Instead, God acknowledges and accepts that Elijah is in a dark place and takes care of him. God lets Elijah sleep and encourages him to eat and makes sure he is well hydrated. If we continue on with the story beyond where today’s passage ends, we find that God asks Elijah what is going on and then listens nonjudgmentally to what Elijah has to say. “And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.

Elijah is depressed not because of a personal lack of faith, but because he is overwhelmed by the faithlessness of Israel. Elijah, perhaps more than anyone else living in his time, understands that Israel’s idolatry will lead to her eventual downfall, and it grieves him deeply. Despite his best efforts to correct the course of the ship of state, he will not be able to prevent its sinking. Elijah is dealing with what today we might call “existential depression”. It is because he sees things that others are do not, and understands how things aren’t but ought to be, that he feels the way he does. Far from demonstrating a lack of trust in the power of God, Elijah’s feelings demonstrate that he is exquisitely sensitive to the heart of God. As the story continues, Elijah becomes transcendently aware of the presence of God, not in earthquake, wind, or fire, but in the sounds of silence .

God turned toward, not away from Elijah during his dark night of the soul. God didn’t snap his fingers and instantly “cure” Elijah’s depression; rather God offered him God’s own self in the form of God’s presence and comfort, as well as providing Elijah with a human companion, Elisha.  Elijah was then able to find the strength to keep on keeping on, to put one foot in front of the other, until the day finally came when God said “Well done, good and faithful servant” and sent chariots of fire to bring him into the ultimate presence of God.

Some things haven’t changed since Elijah’s day. There are still prophets of Baal today, although of course we don’t call them that. There are still many people who would rather worship idols than God today, although of course idols have other names today. But we are not alone and we are not abandoned to our fate. God is still with us, perhaps most especially in the silence. And that’s good news to me.

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Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: The Last Prophets?

Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are the last books in the Old Testament, and according to rabbinic tradition, the last of the prophets. God has said everything he needs to say; now it is up to his followers to study, interpret, and apply his words.  All three are set in the Persian period, after Cyrus had allowed the return of those exiles who wanted to return to the land of their ancestors. Haggai and Zechariah are set specifically “in the second year of Darius” after the exiles had returned, but the Second Temple had not been built. Malachi’s prophecies come a little later, after the Temple has been completed, but ongoing support for it was shaky. Since the name”Malachi” means “my messenger”, some scholars think the writer wasn’t necessarily a man named Malachi, but someone who wished to remain anonymous, perhaps even Ezra.

The people are back in their own land, and the concept of monotheism seems to have been refined in the crucible of the exile.. However, all is not well. The poetic dreams of a second Eden in the form of a restored Jerusalem have not been realized. Although the people aren’t sacrificing their children to Molech or setting up Asherah poles in their backyards anymore, neither do they put God first in their lives. Idols of wood and stone have been replaced by idolatry of the heart, and that’s a bit more difficult to root out. Each of the three final prophets have slightly different concerns and perspectives.

Haggai’s main concern is that the people have not yet rebuilt the Temple. They’ve been there long enough to build nice houses for themselves.“This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’”Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”  Haggai admonishes them to get to work building the Temple with a carrot-and-stick approach: If they do, they will be materially blessed. If they don’t, they will be never get ahead, no matter how hard they work.

While Haggai speaks plainly and directly, Zechariah uses a variety of metaphors: a man watching from the myrtle trees, a man with a measuring line, dirty and clean laundry, a flying scroll, a woman in a basket, chariots, crowns, shepherds. He thinks the temple should be rebuilt too, but understands God as being more concerned with ethical behavior than formal worship. There’s a really intriguing pericope in chapter 7 about fasting. The people want to know whether they should continue fasting on the anniversary of destruction of Solomon’s Temple, as they have done for the past seventy years. Zechariah has God saying “Was it really for me that you fasted? And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves? God doesn’t want ritual worship as much as he wants people to treat each other fairly and kindly. This is nothing new; it’s the same thing he’s already said many times through the Mosaic law and the earlier prophets, but Zechariah says it again:  “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

Most sermons I’ve heard on Malachi have to do with tithing. Malachi says that God knows people aren’t offering their best to God, but their leftovers, and he’s not impressed with their fake piety. Like those who “donate” used underwear and broken electronics to Goodwill, they offer second-rate sacrifices to God while keeping the cream of the crop for themselves. They figure out ways to cheat on giving their fair share of tithes, which God intended to support the priests and temple, provide relief to the poor, and to support the general welfare of the community. “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”  But Malachi is equally concerned about ethical behavior. He is particularly concerned with family values, especially divorce, which he sees as a kind of violence against women. “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”says the Lord Almighty.” God is not pleased with ” adulterers and perjurers,  those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice”

It’s interesting to me to consider Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi together and note their similarities and differences, especially since the writers lived in the same time and place. Although the people are physically back in the Promised Land, they still have far to go spiritually. The much-anticipated Day of the Lord did not coincide with their return, but there will come a time when good will finally triumph over evil, and all will be as God intended. Only God knows when that day will come, but God has already shown us the way to that future: love of God expressed through love of neighbor. And that’s good news to me.