I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to able to accomplish everything I’ve put my mind to. If I tried hard enough I could do anything. I’ve believed this about myself ever since I was a little girl. In high school, I may not have graduated at the top of my class but I did receive the “Extra Effort award, because out of all 31 students in my grade—I apparently tried the hardest. I was never particularly athletic so when I wanted to be a good softball player I bought a contraption that tethered a softball to a pole. I’d spend the majority of my evenings outside hitting this softball. Practice made perfect—and I wanted to be perfect. Except the tethering device swung at a weird angle and I developed the muscle memory to swing the bat at a weird angle. Practice, as I’m learning, doesn’t always make perfect. It’s sometimes not about trying hard enough–some behaviors and some actions are sometimes not effective.

Intellectually, I’d say I’m at least a B student. But I’ve always tried to compensate for that by working harder than everyone else. In school I’ve edged out A’s but working 3x as hard as was probably necessary. My hard work, thus far, has yielded a reasonable amount of success. I have a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in theology from Campbell and Gordon Conwell. But when it was time to move forward in academia at a top-tier school, Duke Divinity School—hard work, it seemed, wasn’t enough. When it came time to complete my Master’s thesis, I failed. My Master’s thesis was going to be my magnum opus. They asked for 50-60 pages—I wrote 100. They asked for a smaller topic, I went bigger. I ambitiously tackled what one professor said, the equivalent of three PhD dissertations or a series of books. I was passionate that I had something groundbreaking, original, and ambitious. I finished two weeks before. I read for grammar and clarity and had several people tell me how awesome, complex and original my work was. And it was rejected. The day I was to defend, I got an email saying that my ideas were great, but that it wasn’t ready. My advisors were kind enough to ignore the fact that I cried throughout the entire meeting telling me how to improve it. I walked at graduation without the degree—but my professors were kind enough to let me finish the thesis throughout the summer. But after receiving the rejection from Duke’s PhD and ThD program earlier that year—I was devastated.

So I turned my mind to other pursuits. I started applying for jobs. Maybe this was God telling me to pursue something other than academia. Maybe I just needed to find a day job? I went on countless interviews throughout the summer and became a finalist for two teaching jobs at Christian schools. Maybe this was it? I was excited to have money to buy a new car and to give Danny room to develop his legal career without worrying about money. When God opens a door—He opens a window, right? Nope. Months went by without a reply and I was rejected by both schools and countless other opportunities. Maybe ministry was the next step? I met with several pastor friends. Nope. I came to the conclusion that I have found myself in a theological persuasion that simply does not respect the gifts of theologically educated women. There’s just not a place in this denomination for me and my gifts. That is ok—I knew that coming into the denomination, disagree but yield to that Church authority. I never thought it would leave me jobless and purposeless. I greatly respect that this nameless denomination preaches the Gospel and is full of people who are committed to living a gospel life. But it hurts when I have an obvious passion for the Church and a set of skills and they just can’t seem to be used. It’s difficult to feel unwanted by Church or to feel like I don’t have a place to use my talents and skills. I really, really hope I’m wrong on this point. I maybe don’t even feel emotionally or spiritually mature/ready to jump into a hospital chaplaincy program or ministry position. It’s maybe even not the denomination, but just me. A sweet woman (who I don’t know very well) asked me politely, “So what are you doing after you finish your thesis?” I broke down in tears and told her—I have no idea.

During this season of frustration, the Psalms have provided me with the words to cry out to God. When I was scared as a little girl I often recited Psalm 23 to myself. As a way to quiet my anxious heart, I’ve taken up the habit again. When I think about post-academic life, it feels like I’m falling off a cliff into the unknown. I don’t know what the next steps are. I don’t even know what industry to apply to jobs for. I call it, in my mind, “the cliff of despair.” When this cliff overwhelms me, I repeat the words of life found in Psalm 23. David says that Christ follows me even into the shadows. Even when these thoughts overwhelm me and I find myself in the pits of despair life with mental illness brings—Christ pitches His tent in that place with me. Because even darkness is not dark to Him who calls Himself Light. David continues and he says that surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. Looking into the uncertainty that the future brings, David says, surely this will be good because Christ is with me. The future might not be what I want—but it will be good because I know Christ’s character. I know that I am a sheep in His pasture. I know that He made me, chose me and I know that I am the very focus of His love. As long as the Author of life lives, He loves. And the only thing that He can’t do is forsake me. The future isn’t a matter of trying hard enough. It’s not a matter of me trying to make my life what I want to be. It’s a matter of knowing the character of the one who says my future is full of goodness and mercy. I might not know what to do with a failed thesis or failed academic plans. I might not know what to do with my career or with a frustrating denomination. I walk into a completely unplanned, unknown future. It’s horrifying. But I do know that surely goodness and mercy will follow me because I know the steadfast character of the one who holds all things in His hands. For right now, that’s enough.

 

 

I was watching tennis with my father in law on one lazy Sunday afternoon surrounded by three German Shepherds. The dogs and I had fallen asleep and I woke up to a chorus of snoring. As I looked at my father in law sleepy eyed, he looked around the room at our snoring dogs and said, “Could you not watch one hour?” This is of course a reference to Jesus’ harsh words to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. This moment before Jesus’ death is one of the most cited passages for the humanity of Jesus. Throughout history theologians have pointed to this moment in time and space where Jesus seems the most human. Here, and the curious scene when Jesus weeps for his friend Lazareth, Jesus seems the most vulnerable. Matthew 26:38 says that Jesus was overwhelmed with sorrow–and in Luke’s account Christ is so distressed that he sweats tears of blood. On the cross, experiencing the alienation and abandonment from the fellowship of the Trinity, He cries out the lament, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

One of the most difficult symptoms of depression for me is the loneliness. For as long as I could remember, I’ve always felt out of place. In high school, my preoccupation with books and theology rather than sports and tractors naturally put my social prospects at a disadvantage. But as I would learn my problem of isolation was not my social awkwardness but withdrawal. Because when my feelings get difficult for me to manage I assume that there is something fundamentally wrong with me. For others, it seems that their path through life is not fraught with valleys of despair. And it seems to me that the heart ache and brokenness of my life just doesn’t happen to people who seem to me to be perfect. For too long, I believed these people were just beautiful, bubbly, smart and kind—things that I could never be or attain. So, for too long I didn’t reach out. Either my friends wouldn’t care or they couldn’t handle the deep pain I was experiencing. The problem with this lie is that there’s some truth to it. A lot of people just don’t have the framework for mental illness. When my in laws think about mental illness they think of the psychological experiments, repressed memories—and their schizophrenic aunt that we don’t talk about. The reason for this blog is to change this. By bringing difficult things out into the open, we normalize and can learn how to care for people. Because the truth of the matter is that mental illness is more common that we think—18% of people in the US. It is a silent disease that becomes a crisis when it’s too late.

Until recently, I only had one or two friends that even knew about my struggles with mental illness. I would unload all of my baggage on people and when trouble came I would expect them to hold me through it. There were some that did. Fiercely loyal people, my husband and my best friend both have clear sense of who they are. They naturally have clear boundaries with people. And they stood and still stand by me when trouble came. Others, who didn’t have the time or resources or simply didn’t know the expectations I had of them fell away. I don’t blame them but they became a self-fulfilling prophesy of why people can’t be trusted.

When I open the library around 6 AM, I drive through what’s known as the Duke Forest—a dense forest Duke uses for hiking trails and ecological research. This morning I drove through a dense fog that covered the forest. Without street lamps, I could imagine it would be perilous hiking. I found out two weeks ago that I was not admitted to Duke’s ThD program. I was shocked. I found out from a friend in my cohort when he asked how my interview went. When I didn’t get an invitation to interview, I knew. After eight years of theological study, this was it. This is what I’ve been working toward. It was the only school where I applied because it was the only school that worked geographically for us. I had already spoken with professors at Duke about a possible dissertation. Mentally, I was there with a velvet draped robe and tam doctoral hat. I often caught myself writing Dr. Lindsey Gibson on my notebooks or just to see what it looked like on my resume. I often imagined receiving mail addressed to Mr. and Dr. Gibson and lecturing freshman about Christology. I often sported Duke apparel proclaiming my allegiance to their athletic programs but also associating myself with Duke and thus proclaiming my own academic excellence both past and future. After receiving this news, it was over. All of the degrees that I’ve earned and the degree I’ll earn in May didn’t matter. I had planned for this eventuality—but I never thought it would happen. All of a sudden, I don’t know who I am anymore. The sweatshirt with DUKE brazened on my chest all of a sudden became not my future academic excellence—but my failure. All of a sudden, I have no future, no plan, and no hope.

I sunk down to uncharted waters of depression. It wrapped around me like a fog and I was lost in sin and came closer to suicide than I’d care to admit. Unable to care for myself, I was forced to reach out to my community. With a clear explanation of what was going on, boundaries and expectations, my community showed up in so many ways. Through the confession of sin, one friend saw me in my brokenness. Because her way of life is so steeped in the gospel, she immediately pointed me to the one who forgives. She opened up her home and her life in inexplicable ways. “Just come” she said. “Don’t knock. Don’t call. Just come.” She embraced me in my suffering with the arms of Jesus. She was the light in the fog that called me home. One friend answered the phone at 12:30 AM and spoke gentle words of comfort to my husband’s anxious heart. Another, simply sat in the darkness with me. She saw it for all its horror and didn’t cower or run away. Yet another friend answered the phone at midnight came and sat with my weeping husband until around 3am. I stayed at her house for a weekend and watched Psych reruns and ate ice cream. As my thesis advisor, Dr. Warren Kinghorn wrote, their presence simply said, “You are unable to hope right now, and that’s OK. You don’t have to. We will carry you for a time in the work of hoping.” They hoped when I couldn’t hope for myself. As we told my sister and brother in law—because their life is steeped in prayer, in the presence of such darkness and pain they stopped and prayed. They cast out anything to do with the Enemy and invited the Spirit of Life and Truth. They prayed for strength beyond themselves when they couldn’t offer anything more.

Bonhoeffer writes in his book Life Together, “A psalm we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgement, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He it is who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter.” The Christ I encounter and overemphasize in my life is the divinity Christ who is homoousious with the Father—holy other. Bonhoeffer reminds me here that debased as man Christ is not only mediator of my salvation but is actively praying for me. He is not only Just and Justifier—but both the subject and object of our prayer. In the psalms, Christ both lives among us and experiences suffering but also offers prayer to ease the suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane Christ doesn’t just or even primarily pray for Himself and the agony He will endure—but weeps over my suffering. My suffering is not that I didn’t get what I want by not getting into Duke—but that I would place my value, sense of success/failure and worth as a person to a point I’d contemplate suicide but that my status and worth as a person was grounded in something other than Christ, Himself. That’s the real tragedy—that after eight years of Christian formation I’d forget something like that. Christ cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  He weeps that mental illness would lead me to a place of withdrawal and that humanity would ever be separated from the Father. My community can love me fiercely and boldly because it is firmly rooted in the community of the Trinity. Yes—they can stay up and watch just one hour because the Son already watches and prays for me.

Darkness and light is my personal journey of making sense of theology and mental illness. For too long, my study of theology has been merely a cerebral exercise. Refusing to be formed by the theological truth at my disposal, my heart loves the darkness. Depression, my psychiatric malady, takes hold of darkness and refuses all hope, light or truth. Depression is an illness just like the common cold is an illness. Both have physiological causes and treatments but death, including depression, has only one cure: the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Athanasius’ anthropology is formed through a Christological hermeneutic.  Both represent their own form of decay. But depression willfully chooses death.  Called out of the dust of nothingness, we are created through and for participation with God’s goodness. We are granted life out of His own Divine Life. This means we were created with eternity in mind. Athanasius writes, “God is good—or rather, he is the source of goodness. But the good is not begrudging of anything. Because he does not begrudge being to anything, he made all things from non-being through his own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Among all things upon the earth he was especially merciful toward the human race. Seeing that by the logic of it own origin it would not be capable of always remaining, he granted it a further gift. He did not create human beings merely like all the irrational animals upon the earth, but made them according to his own Image, and shared with them the power of his own Word so that having a kind of reflection of the Word and thus becoming rational, they may be enabled to remain in blessedness and live the true life of the saints in paradise.” For Athanasius, God gives humanity the law because he made humanity rational, reflecting Himself. Rationality entails free choice. We were given the law as a παιδαγωγὸς to protect the life we have been given. But because our life is sustained by His Life, a rejection of God is not just rule breaking—it results in death. We return to the nothingness through which we came. Humanity incurs a debt, not because of divine honor in the Anselmic sense, but a debt rejecting a life that was only a loan to us.

Paul in Romans 6:23 writes that sin is death. At the Fall, death permeated our world. According to Athanasius, we were created for immortality. We were created to live forever. The decay of our bodies from common colds to cancer is a physical reminder of the consequences of sin. Our heart recoils at sickness and suffering because something instinctual in our heart remembers it was created for immortality. My dad died of brain cancer and my family watched the decay of his body. We experienced first hand the consequences of sin. We don’t blame people for their illness. People don’t choose to have cancer. But in physical illness we see the physical effects of Sin in our world and can turn to the Author of life for healing.

Depression is the double edged sword of sin because it not only involves the physical effects of Sin in our world but also is an active choice to live in darkness. Depression is a physical issue. The distorted firing of neurons causes a myriad of symptoms. For me, depression physically hurts. I can feel it all the way down in my bones. But depression is also an active choice. It actively turns away from the Author of life and chooses death. I can choose not to take my medication. I can choose to take actions that I know will make me feel worse. I can choose to dwell in an unhealthy thought pattern. I can choose isolation rather than community. Instead of remembering my immortality, instead of remembering the source of my life, my heart loves darkness and even fantasies about death. It is, for me, a profound selfishness that understands my happiness to be the end of all things.

Athanasius writes, “The death of all was fulfilled in the Lord’s body, and death and corruption were obliterated because of the Word who was united with it. For death was necessary and it was needful that there be death on behalf of all in order that the debt owed by all might be repaid. The Word himself inasmuch as he could not die, for he was immortal, took to himself a body which could die so that he may offer it as his own on behalf of all.” Christ offers himself so that we might re-enter into communion with God. Athanasius writes, “For it was not the Word himself who needed the opening of the gates…We were the one who needed this and he carried us up through his own body. For he offered it to death on behalf of all, so through it he again prepared the way to heaven.”

Christ’s death is a reversal of our death. Christ changes the direction of our death toward God. Our death declines God’s offer of life and misses the mark by falling into the abyss of nothingness. The double edged sword of depression takes the sickness of Sin and actively chooses death and destruction in my life. What comes is a debt that owes God the life he offered. Khaled Anatolois writes, “Through Christ’s self-giving on our behalf and his extension to us of this posture of self-giving through our communion with him, our refusal of the gift of divine life is reversed to the point of our receiving this gift and responding to it with our own gift of ourselves to God through Christ. Through death, Christ enters into the extreme limit of humanity’s withdrawal and reverses this withdrawal by making it a gift-offering to the Father.”

When death was imminent and as father realized his body was wasting away he simply said, “Jesus take me home.” He felt the death in his body and knew to turn to the Author of Life. He knew that his immortality was secure in the person of Jesus Christ. Taking up all sickness and death in His body, we are healed through the power of His resurrection. Christ takes up my sorrow in his body and makes the choices I can’t make. While my selfishness chooses death, He gives Himself so that I might live.